Ants repair home damage in trees in Panama

January 8, 2022
Some ants and plants have developed symbiotic relationships, in which ants may contribute to protecting their host plant against threats, while receiving food and shelter in exchange.


Add repairman to the skills of ants.

The super strength and communicative power of ants are well-documented. Ants can lift more than 100 times their body weight and correspond through pheromones and sounds

Now, some ants in Panama have exhibited never-before-seen extraordinary behavior: They repaired holes in the trees they inhabit.

Researchers already knew the Azteca ants had a symbiotic relationship with the Cecropia (or trumpetwood) trees, which grow in Mexico, Central and South America. Ant colonies live in the trees’ trunks and stems and they get food from the plant, the researchers wrote in the most recent issue of the Journal of Hymenoptera Research, a peer-reviewed online publication on insect research.

The ants protect the trees by attacking other insects and animals that might eat or harm the plant. They also keep the tree clear of vines that may encircle parts of the tree.

This newly identified ability to mend trees was discovered accidentally when lead author Alex Wcislo accidentally shot a clay ball through a Cecropia tree trunk with a slingshot in 2020 during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Panama. The next morning, he saw that the ants had repaired the holes. 

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He and his brother, Lucas, and three other local teens decided to do an experiment, with guidance from their father William Wcislo, a scientist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. They began drilling holes into other Cecropia trees in their Panama City neighborhood.

As soon as they drilled holes in the plants, they often saw ants move to “the wound area” and began repairing the damage, according to a description of the research on the institute’s site

After 2.5 hours, the ants had “significantly reduced” the size of the holes and, within 24 hours, often had completely repaired them using undetermined plant fibers and what appeared to be plant sap.

“These results of home-repair behavior … in a symbiont reveal a new level of attention by the ants to their host plants,” the researchers wrote. “The ants not only behave in ways to minimize damage to their hosts, but when damage does occur, they actively work to fix it, albeit for their own benefit.”

William Wcislo said he “was totally surprised by the results,” in the synopsis of the research on the institute website. “And I was impressed by how (the teens) developed a simple way to test the idea that ants repair damage to their home.”

The researchers reasoned that perhaps the ants learned to patch the plants because the toenails of sloths and silky anteaters may pierce the trees – and those holes needed repair.

Some additional research could be done because not all ants repaired the damage made by the drills, the researchers say. 

“Sometimes messing around with a slingshot has a good outcome,” Alex Wcislo said in the website article. “This project allowed us to experience first-hand all the intricacies behind a scientific study. All in all, it was a great learning experience, especially considering the difficulties associated with fulfilling this due to COVID-19.”

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.


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