Ants and Trees: A Lifelong Relationship

By Ellison, Aaron M. | American Forests, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Ants and Trees: A Lifelong Relationship


Ellison, Aaron M., American Forests


WHEN THINKING OF HOW ANTS INTERACT with trees, a lot of people may think of carpenter ants eating trees - and the wood in their home. In fact, in both our forests and houses, these denizens of hollow trees and rotting rafters are merely the final stage of a lifelong relationship between trees and many kinds of ants. Take a closer look at the many healthy seedlings, saplings and trees near your home. Anywhere you look, you will probably find a worker of one of the many ant species associated with the trees in our forests. Follow her back to her nest, and you'll start to learn about the intertwined lives of ants and trees.

OF SEEDLINGS AND SOIL

The trail of workers often will lead back to a volcano-like heap of soil. Depending on the species, such anthills can range in size from a tiny pile of sand grains that is less than an inch across to a huge mound several feet high and many cubic yards in volume. This is where the lifelong connection between ants and trees begins. Anthills are the product of tens to tens of thousands of burrowing, tunneling worker ants that have excavated mineral soil while building temperature-controlled earthen chambers in which to live, store food, protect the queen and rear her brood. In the formerly glaciated parts of North America - most of Canada and much of the northern reaches of the United States - there are no native earthworms. In these areas, much of the topsoil was created by ants. In fact, ants create soil up to 10 times faster than earthworms, excavating as much as 30,000 pounds of soil per acre every year, creating about 4 inches of new soil per millennium in the process.

In this way, ants are integral to the life of a tree from the very beginning. Ants create the best compost there is; anthills are localized hotspots of nutrients. Their digestive cycle helps to create the nutrient-rich soil young treesneed. As omnivores, ants collect and store large amounts of nutrient-rich prey. As they process this food, their wastes further enrich the soil Ant nests are also close to pH-neutral: If the surrounding soil is acidic, ant nests tend to be more basic, and vice-versa All of this means that a seedling that germinates from a seed that was lucky enough to land on the sweet, rich soil of an anthill will often get a head-start in the race for the canopy.

SCRATCH MY BACK, I'LL SCRATCH YOURS

As trees grow, they are set upon by true bugs (order Hemiptera) that feed on sap, such as aphids, among many other herbivorous insects. In some cases, the role ants play at this stage in a tree's life can actually cause a population boom for these insects, as many of our most common and abundant ants, including Fuzzy ants (Lasius species) and species of Formica (Latin for "ant," not the plastic countertop) care for the bugs. They stand guard over the bugs, protecting them from predators and occasionally moving them from place to place to tap new areas of the tree, all in exchange for the privilege of dining on their excreta. Only rarely will a mature tree succumb to this population boom, but seedlings or small saplings may not survive it.

In response, some trees have evolved a work-around to the ant-bug mutualism, and feed the ants directly. In turn, for a reward similarly sweet to that which they would get from the bugs, the ants protect the trees.

This type of ant-tree mutualism is common throughout the tropics, where a variety of trees produce specialized structures to feed and/or house ants. One of the classic examples of a coevolutionary mutualism - two species evolving in tandem to the benefit of both - involves 'ant-plants' and 'plant-ants' in tropical forests. Ant-plants, such as Central America's bull-horn acacias and trees of the genus Cecropia, have hollow structures - thorns and internodes in their hollow stems, respectively - in which ants form their colonies. The trees also secrete sugar and protein-rich food bodies that make up a significant portion of the ants' diet. …

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