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Sep 3, 2010

Bet you didn't know that ants could be tree huggers too. No, they aren't staging sit-ins, conducting fundraising, or camping out in forests, but in Africa they are doing an awful lot to protect a certain kind of tree. 

Elephants can cause a great deal of damage to tree cover, and in Africa, that's a resource that needs to be kept intact. When scientists from the University of Wyoming were conducting research in Kenya, they were interested to see that despite foliage being ripped from many trees in the forest, a certain species of Acacia tree seemed to be all but untouched. Intrigued, the researchers set up an experiment, and their findings show that when it comes to protecting trees, size doesn't matter one bit.
It seems that ants prefer to make their homes on the branches of the Acacia drepanolobium tree. The relationship is symbiotic: they receive housing, as well as food in the nectar from the tree's flowers. In return, the ants protect the tree from creatures like elephants and giraffes that would consume their canopy. How? Believe it or not, by climbing up their noses. The inside of giraffe snouts and elephant trunks are quite sensitive, so when they reach out to grab a lim of the tree, the ants swarm inside and start biting. As a result, animals tend to leave those trees alone (and I can't say I blame them). 
The ants may be doing a lot more than just protecting their home. As droughts increase throughout the region, elephants may forage for - and destroy in the process - even more trees than usual. Just not the Acacia drepanolobium. Strange as it may seem, ants could be preserving the future of trees in Africa, and may act as the last line of defense preventing a complete conversion of an ecosystem into desert or grassland. 
Read more about these diminutive environmentalists at

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Posted: Sep 3, 2010 9:14am


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