Hot ants defend plants from elephants

I’ve lost a lot of sleep over ants.  As a spider researcher, I often placed ants on spiderwebs to lure my spiders out of their underground retreats and onto their webs. The problem was that these harvester ants (Pogonmyrmex species) were fierce, so to minimize damage to myself, I was forced to capture them in the very early morning, when they and (alas) I were very sluggish.

acacias_thorn copy

Swollen thorn (domatia) that serves as living quarters for acacia ants. Credit: T. Palmer.

Todd Palmer has worked with ants for many years, including research on ant-plant mutualisms in which acacia trees provide domatia (swollen thorns) as ant living quarters and extrafloral nectaries as ant food, while ants provide protection from herbivores such as elephants, kudus and steenboks.

Similar to my efforts with ants and spiders, Palmer wanted to reduce ant-induced damage to himself and his colleagues, so he often took advantage of early morning ant sluggishness for purposes of manipulating acacia trees. On the other hand, if he wanted to study aggressive responses, he learned that mid-day was best. Recognizing the daily patterns of ant activity got Palmer, Ryan Tamashiro (Palmer’s undergraduate research student) and Patrick Milligan (Palmer’s graduate student) thinking about how these different levels of activity would influence herbivores, many of which tend to be most active during dawn and dusk when temperatures are low and ants are relatively sluggish.

Elephant side

Elephants are major herbivores that can cause enormous damage to acacia trees. Credit: T. Palmer.

Four species of ants live in domatia on branches of Acacia drepanolobium, the dominant tree species at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya.

Acdr habitat

A grove of Acacia drepanolobium. Credit: T. Palmer.

In order of relative abundance, the ant species are Crematogaster mimosae (52%), C. sjostedti (18%), Tetraponera penzigi (16%) and C. nigriceps (15%).  Previous research showed that C. mimosae and C. nigriceps are the two most effective acacia defenders.

Cnigriceps copy

Crematogaster nigriceps on an acacia tree. Credit: T. Palmer.

Ants are poikilotherms, whose body temperature, and presumably their activity levels, fluctuate with environmental temperature.  As these ants live in acacia branches, the first order of business became to determine how branch temperature fluctuated with time of day during the 21 days of data collection.  Not surprisingly, branch temperature peaked at mid-day, and was lowest at dawn and dusk (temperatures were not measured during the night).

TamashiroFig S!

Variation in branch surface temperature with time of day. Horizontal bars are median values; boxes are first and third quartiles.

Tamashiro, Milligan and Palmer next asked how ant activity level related to branch temperature.  Different ant species don’t get along so well, so each tree hosted only one ant species.  For each tree surveyed, the researchers counted the number of ants that passed over a 5 cm branch segment during a 30 second time period (they did this twice for each tree),  The researchers discovered a strong correlation between branch surface temperature and baseline ant activity, with C. mimosae and C. nigriceps showing greatest activity levels at all temperatures, which increased sharply at higher temperatures.

TamashiroFig 1a

Ant activity levels in relation to branch surface temperature. Shaded areas are 95% confidence intervals for each species.

Do higher temperatures cause a stronger aggressive response to predators or other disturbances? Tamashiro and his colleagues tested this by rapidly sliding a gloved hand over a 15 cm segment of a branch three times and then resting the gloved hand on the branch for 30 s.  They then removed the glove and counted the number of ants that had swarmed onto the glove.  Again, C. mimosae and C. nigriceps showed the strongest aggressive response, which increased sharply with temperature

TamashiroFig 1b

Aggressive swarming by ants in relation to branch surface temperature. Shaded areas are 95% confidence intervals for each species.

While a gloved hand is a nice surrogate for predators, the researchers wanted to know how the ants would respond to a real predator, and whether the response was temperature dependent.  At the same time, they wanted to determine whether the predator would change its behavior in response to changes in ant defensive behavior at different temperatures.  They used eight somali goats (Capra aegagrus hircus) as their predators, and C. mimosae as the focal ant species for these trials.

Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald, USMC - United States Department of Defense

Somali goats in Ali Sabieh, Djibouti. Credit: Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald, USMC – United States Department of Defense.

The researchers chose eight trees of similar size for their experiment, and removed ants from four of the trees by spraying them with a short-lived insecticide, and preventing ant recolonization by spreading a layer of ultra-sticky solution (Tanglefoot) around the based of each treated tree.  Goats were allowed to feed for five minutes.


Number of bites (top graph) and time spent feeding (bottom graph) by goats in relation to branch surface temperature. Shaded area is 95% confidence interval.

Tamashiro and his colleagues measured the number of bites taken (top graph) and the amount of time spent feeding (bottom graph) at different branch temperatures.  Both measures of goat feeding were not influenced by branch temperature if there were no ants on the trees (blue lines and points).  But if ants were present (red lines and points), goat feeding decreased sharply with increasing branch temperature, presumably reflecting more aggressive ant defense of the plants.

These findings have important implications for acacia trees, which are a critical species in the sub-Saharan ecosystem.  Previous research has shown that elephant damage is strongly influenced by the number of swarming ants on a particular tree; a greater number of swarming ants are associated with less elephant damage. Many vertebrate browsers feed throughout the day, but may feed preferentially at dawn and dusk, when temperatures are cooler and ant-defense is weakest. Browsing is particularly problematic for acacia saplings, which are usually attacked by small-bodied vertebrates such as steenbok, which forage primarily at night when ants are least active.  Thus the effectiveness of ant defense may be compromised by mismatches between vertebrate activity periods and ant activity periods.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Tamashiro, R. A., P. D. Milligan, and T. M. Palmer. 2019. Left out in the cold: temperature-dependence of defense in an African ant–plant mutualism. Ecology 100(6): e02712. 10.1002/ecy.2712 . Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.