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Updated: September 3, 2010 16:58 IST

Ants really do scare elephants

ANI
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A foraging trap-jaw ant. File photo
AP A foraging trap-jaw ant. File photo

They may be tiny, but ants can bring giant elephants down to their knees, according to a new study that reveals that elephants in the savannah have good reason to be scared of the tiny insects.

Columns of angered ants will crawl up into elephant trunks to repel the hungry beasts from devouring tree cover throughout drought-plagued East African savannas. The inside of an elephant’s trunk is tender and highly sensitive to thousands of biting ants swarming up into it, he said.

University of Florida researcher Todd Palmer said that in doing so, ants play a potentially important role in regulating carbon sequestration in these ecosystems.

“It really is a David and Goliath story, where these little ants are up against these huge herbivores, protecting trees and having a major impact on the ecosystems in which they live,” Mr. Palmer said. “These ants play a central role in preventing animals that want to eat trees from doing extensive damage to those trees,” he added.

Mr. Palmer and his colleague Jacob Goheen noticed that elephants rarely ate a widespread tree species known as Acacia drepanolobium where guardian ants aggressively swarm anything that touches the trees. But they would feed on other trees that did not harbour these ants.

“We found the elephants like to eat the “ant plant” trees just as much as they like to eat their favourite tree species, and that when either tree species had ants on them, the elephants avoided those trees like a kid avoids broccoli,” he said.

Giraffes were yet another story - their long tongues would swipe away the ants before they could inflict any pain.

Now, the researchers are wondering if they may be able to save the green cover of the savannahs by simply spraying the trees with ant odours.

Ants’ role in saving trees is critical with the interest in slowing the accumulation of greenhouse gasses since trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Mr. Palmer said.

The paper is published this week in the journal Current Biology.

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