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Acacias, Ants And Elephants

Learn how acacias, ants and elephants work together to survive.

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Photo: alexanderhamdy (flickr)

Some elephants eat from the acacia tree.

Ever wonder what ants, acacia trees and elephants have in common?

An Interesting Relationship

Ants, acacia trees and elephants are linked together in a somewhat ironic relationship. Acacias are thorny scrubby African trees.

Acacia leaves are an important food source for many of Africa’s largest herbivores such as giraffes, zebras and elephants.

An Alliance

Such large grazers can do significant damage to an acacia tree. In order to deter these hungry browsers, the whistling acacia has formed an alliance with ants. The acacia trees provide housing and sugary nectar for the ants.

In return armies of these biting ants swarm any animals attempting to eat the trees.

Everyone Working Together

It turns out that although the trees invest a lot of resources in the protective ants, trees that are grazed by big animals actually survive better than trees that aren’t grazed at all.

When the trees are munched by large herbivores they develop special hollow thorns the protector ants like to live in, and produce a sweet nectar for the guard ants to eat. Fenced off trees, while protected from hungry giraffes and elephants, stop producing homes and nectar for the ants.

Energy And Acacia Trees

The disappearance of the protector ants allows a different species of ant to move in and take over. These new ants promote the activity of destructive stem boring beetles, which can stunt the growth and even kill acacia trees.

If not for the damage from hungry elephants, the tree doesn’t invest energy to house and feed the ants. But without its relationship with the protector ants, the tree suffers even more.

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