Some time ago, Care2 reported elephants are afraid of bees, and that fear might be used to protect crops from elephants. Now research has shown elephants are also repelled by ants. Scientists studied elephants in Kenya and observed them eating branches and leaves from acacia trees to the extent many trees were damaged. Large numbers of Whistling-thorn acacia trees, however, were observed to be intact. Swaths of Kenya savannah containing them were observed in satellite images and remained in good condition. This type of tree is protected by acacia ants.
Scientists set up a test where elephants were given various acacia material to eat, with and without ants. Acacia branches with ants were ignored by the elephants. The reason for ignoring the branches with ants, was that the elephants could smell the ants and knew if they ate those branches, the ants would bite the sensitive parts of their trunks, which are filled with nerve endings.
One of the researchers explained how strongly the ants defend their tree hosts, “Whenever you create a disturbance in the tree canopy, the ants come and investigate. As an ecologist, you end up with a lot of bites and stings.” (Source: BBC News)
These trees not only harbor ants, they have nectaries which attract ants with their sweetness. The ants and whistling-thorn acacia trees have a symbiois–or mutually beneficial–relationship. The trees are defended from large animals that eat them and the ants receive food and shelter.
The bee and elephant research mentioned earlier might turn out to be useful if bee hives can be located in a way which protects crops, so elephants stay away from them and do not get killed by angry farmers. In the future it might be possible to use tree defending ants in a similar manner.
Image Credit: Ryan Somma