June 28, 2022


Discover your best

These Ants Can ‘Heal’ Wounded Trees in a Fascinating Symbiotic Relationship

An accidental slingshot strike on a Cecropia tree in Panama has led to a shocking discovery: the Azteca alfari ants that live inside these trees are frequently completely ready to take care of problems to their dwelling properties.


When large schooler Alex Wcislo fired the 9 mm (.35 inch) clay ball by way of the tree, leaving clean entry and exit ‘wounds’, he did not expect the holes to be practically absolutely repaired just before 24 hours was up.

That led to further more experiments by Wcislo and five of his university student mates, drilling holes in other trees to see how they would be patched up.

Absolutely sure more than enough, the ant repairs happened time and time again. The experiments were then penned up and revealed as section of the volunteer method at the Smithsonian Tropical Investigate Institute (STRI) in Panama.

The exploration team in motion. (Donna Conlon)

“I was fully amazed by the benefits,” suggests ethologist William Wcislo, from the  STRI. “And I was amazed by how [the students] produced a basic way to test the thought that ants repair damage to their household.”

The symbiotic or mutually effective romantic relationship between Azteca ants and the trees that host them has previously been perfectly established: the ants will do their greatest to protect the trees against herbivores, acquiring nutritious oily secretions from the leaves to consume and shelter in just hollow stems in return.

What is new right here is the observation that the insects also maintenance damage to their tree pals if that shelter is threatened. Based mostly on the new research, this looks to most regularly happen when the brood (the eggs, larvae and pupae) of a colony is at risk.

GettyImages 1272702359The Cecropia tree, shielded by Azteca ants. (NancyAyumi/iStock/Getty Pictures As well as)

The repairs are produced working with materials uncovered within just the plant stem alone, but it doesn’t happen in every circumstance – in simple fact restore work were only carried out on 14 of the 22 drilled holes. Knowing why this is the situation could be the topic of further more investigation.

“The reasoning at the rear of hole repair behavior could be mainly because a gap in the wall exposes the ants’ susceptible immature phases to external pathogens, predators, or improvements in other environmental parameters,” write the scientists in their released paper.


Immediately after burrowing into Cecropia trees, Azteca ants will close up some of the entry factors, introducing credence to the strategy that their trunk repairs are far more to do with their have wellbeing rather than any profit the tree by itself gets.

Which is backed up by the observations produced all through the experiments: that the ants will evacuate their brood just before commencing the patch up occupation. It truly is possible that when the repairs are not carried out, it is really due to the fact the vulnerable members of the colony usually are not straight less than menace.

The workforce, even so, can not totally rule out the risk that the tree is receiving some profit from this ant conduct, these as antimicrobial secretions close to its damage.

And when slingshot pellets aren’t normally a trouble for Cecropia trees, holes left by the toenails of sloths and anteaters often are, which may possibly be why the ants they are web hosting have developed to behave in this way.

“Sometimes messing all around with a slingshot has a excellent final result,” says Alex Wcislo, who reports at the Worldwide Faculty of Panama.

“This job authorized us to encounter initial-hand all the intricacies behind a scientific study. All in all, it was a good studying experience, in particular thinking of the complications associated with fulfilling this owing to COVID-19.”

The study has been printed in the Journal of Hymenoptera Investigation.