Advertisement

Acacia ants turn vanquished rivals into allies

"Physical combat not only yields biological winners and losers," researcher Kathleen Rudolph said. "It can alter the identity of its combatants."

By Brooks Hays
Researcher Kathleen Rudolph takes a look at a colony of acacia ants. New research suggests the ants are able to coerce vanquished rivals into switching their allegiance. Photo by Aileen Mack/National Geographic Society
Researcher Kathleen Rudolph takes a look at a colony of acacia ants. New research suggests the ants are able to coerce vanquished rivals into switching their allegiance. Photo by Aileen Mack/National Geographic Society

GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 18 (UPI) -- Africa's acacia ants, Crematogaster mimosae, use their powerful, painful bite to defend their trees from leaf-munchers like elephants and giraffes. They also have to fend off invading ants.

Wars with rival colonies sometimes leave the ants victorious but depleted. New research suggests the ants recruit their one-time enemies to shore up defenses.

Advertisement

During field studies, researchers from the University of Florida tied acacia tree limbs together to encourage conflict. Tarps on the ground helped researchers count casualties.

In the aftermath of an ant war, researchers simulated the invasion of a hungry herbivore and found battle-weary colonies were less effective at defending their tree. Genetic analysis proved victorious colonies bring former foes into the fold.

"Colonies are battling so aggressively that many individuals die, but then they are able to just stop fighting and form a lasting truce," lead researcher Kathleen Rudolph said in a news release. "It's pretty remarkable."

The new research was published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Researchers aren't are sure how the ants know to switch sides, but previous studies have identified the use of pheromones as essential in distinguishing between friend and foe. It's possible the losing ants adopt the smell of their new team.

Advertisement

"Physical combat not only yields biological winners and losers," Rudolph said. "It can alter the identity of its combatants."

Latest Headlines