Brandon Sanders

Ants, the Mighty Defenders Ants, although small and seemingly insignificant, can be the best defense for something as big as a tree in most Mesoamerica tropical forests. When necessary resources become scarce, plants can develop mutualism with animals, in this case ants, to help defend them from predators to ensure survival. Elizabeth G. Pringle and a team of biologists decided to head to Mesoamerica forests located throughout Central America to observe mutualisms in organisms. Elizabeth is a Ph.D. graduate student of biology from Stanford University. She currently works as an Ecologist at the University of Michigan and focuses on species interactions. She has 11 publications that tend to focus around mutualisms between species. Pringle’s most renowned publication, “Water Stress Strengthens Mutualism among Ants, Trees, and Scale Insects” has been covered by L.A. Times and many other news sources. “I am interested in how community structure, including both biotic and abiotic components, influences or is influenced by mutualistic interactions among species,” says Pringle in her profile on Epernicus (Pringle, Epernicus). This led her to Latin American forests from Mexico to Argentina where she would make some interesting observations on ant-plant mutualism. Pringle knew about a species of ant known as Azteca pittieri and a species of tree called Cordia alliodora that have a mutual relationship. While she was in some of the tropical forests during their dryer seasons, she noticed that the trees had an large colony of these Azteca pittieri swarming the trees. Pringle said in her interview with L.A Times, “you touch the tree, you’re immediately covered in ants” (Pringle, L.A. Times). In areas with large amounts of rainfall, there were fewer ants. She then formed a hypothesis.

Brandon Sanders

Pringle wondered, since there are less ants in these wetter areas and more in the dryer climates, maybe the lack of water is influencing the trees to give off a sugary substance that attracted smaller insects which would attract the ants, who then would fend off herbivorous insects that attack the leaves of the trees. To find out if this idea had some truth, the team performed some tests (Pringle, Akcay, Raab, Dirzo, Gordon). Pringle and her team tested different precipitation gradients throughout Central American tropical forests to see if water stress would lead to the increase or decrease of ant activity. They also wanted to see if the lack of water influenced the trees to store carbon which is used to help grow more leafs and to create the sugary substance the small insects feed on (Pringle, Akcay, Raab, Dirzo, Gordon). Their results were fascinating. First, they found out that, in the dryer areas, the ant colonies were larger and aggression was much higher. The trees were attracting smaller insects in an attempt to keep what few leaves they have to survive. The trees would also use some carbon from their carbon storage to keep the ants happy. In the wetter locations, the trees had a surplus of resources. They weren’t concerned about losing their leaves to hungry herbivorous insects since they could just grow new ones. This meant smaller ant colonies with less aggression (Pringle, Akcay, Raab, Dirzo, Gordon). This mutualism between a creature so small and something so big has proven to be an amazing proof of how species can work together. No matter their size, they help each other to survive through the harshest of times.

Brandon Sanders

Works Cited Khan, Amina. “Trees recruit army of ants to defend against invading leaf eaters.” Los Angeles Times: Science. A Tribune Newspaper website. 6, Nov. 2013. Web. 1, Mar. 2014. <http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-ant-tree-sapprotect-rain-leaves-20131105,0,2637248.story#axzz2juYPB0nA>

Pringle, Elizabeth G. “Elizabeth G. Pringle, A.B.” Epernicus: where science meets. Epernicus. 2014. Web. 1, Mar. 2014. <http://www.epernicus.com/egp>.

Pringle EG, Akcay E, Raab TK, Dirzo R, Gordon DM. “Water Stress Strengthens Mutualism Among Ants, Trees, and Scale Insects.” PLOS Biology. 11.11 (2013) e1001705. <http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001705>