Trees, Ants and Elephants: Balance Gone Bad

January 17, 2008
Trees, Ants and Elephants: Balance Gone Bad
On a swollen thorn, Crematogaster mimosae workers attack invading C. mimosae workers from a neighboring colony. (Todd Palmer/University of Florida photo)

UC Davis researchers in Africa have a riveting tale of natural balance gone bad, with an unhappy moral for other ecosystems: This could happen to you.

The paper in the Jan. 11 issue of the journal Science is the latest to chronicle one of many patterns to emerge since 1995, when UC Davis ecologist Truman Young fenced elephants and other large herbivores out of 10-acre plots in the central Kenya savannah.

Because elephants eat acacia trees "like we eat cupcakes," as another researcher told National Public Radio, one might think that fencing them out would be good for the trees. Instead, excluding the elephants caused the collapse of a longstanding, mutually beneficial relationship between acacia trees and the ants that live in their branches.

For thousands of years, the ants had limited elephant grazing by swarming from the tree branches onto the animals' sensitive heads and trunks. In return, the trees kept their guardian ants happy by producing food and living quarters.

But when Young's fences took them off the elephants' menu, the acacia trees cut the ants' food and housing subsidies. The ants moved away; tree-eating bugs moved in. Eventually the trees inside the fences were smaller and sicker than those outside, even considering the effects of elephants grazing on the unfenced trees.

"Elephants today occupy only a fraction of their historical range in Africa, and this is one of the negative results of their loss," said Young, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and the Ecology Graduate Group. "That species as different as elephants, ants and trees are so intimately interconnected shows, once again, that when we mess with nature, we should expect dire consequences that we cannot anticipate."

Other authors on the new paper are Young's former graduate student Todd Palmer, now an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Florida; Maureen Stanton, a UC Davis professor of evolution and ecology; Richard Karban, a UC Davis professor of entomology; and researchers at University of British Columbia and Stanford University.

The paper, "Breakdown of an Ant-Plant Mutualism Follows the Loss of Large Herbivores from an African Savanna," is online at: www.sciencemag.org .

Source: UC Davis

Explore further: Ants take on Goliath role in protecting trees in the savanna from elephants

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earthling
5 / 5 (3) Jan 17, 2008
Not happy PhysOrg.com, the paper may well be online, but it is pay per view. What are you getting out of your link to sciencemag.org? A few cents per click maybe? Disappointing.
roguetrekker
1 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2008
Only idiots screw with the natural balance. The Earth and all of it's creatures are far more resourceful than we humans give them credit for. The only time we should EVER intervene is when we directly cause the problem to begin with.
wesgeorge
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2008
It's fascinating that elephants, ants and acacias have formed a symbiotic relationship, however this is an illustration of the unfathomed flexibility and opportunistic adaption of ecosystems rather than a measure of how direly fragile natural balances are.

I'm a conservationist, for the record. Of course, we should tread lightly upon ecosystems, that's common sense. But the fact that even ants, elephants and acacias have evolve together for the benefit of all illustrates the resourcefulness of natural selection, rather than a fundamental weakness.

I suspect if the researchers looked to areas cleared of pachyderms some few generations ago, rather than just last year, they would discover whole new acacia-ant cooperation strategies evolving far more rapidly than their moralistic carping suggests.

It's too bad the tenor of so much ecological research today is couched in anthropomorphic terms of didactic tragedy quite at odds with the true dynamism of natural systems far from equilibrium. This sort of 19th-century melodramatization of natural processes must be terribly misleading for students.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Jan 18, 2008
Well said but for the argumentum ad verecundiam, the corresponding reverse case would be an argumentum ad hominem ("I'm an expert 'conservationist' and you're not.").
TMPalmer
not rated yet Jan 19, 2008
hey there folks, if you search on the lead author's homepage, they'll often post a link to a free download of the paper you're interested in...in this case, feel free to grab a copy from my site, at: http://web.mac.co...ons.html

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