When drilled holes into Cecropia trees, tiny ants colonizing its trunks emerged like fairy Godmothers to heal the wounded parts — such was the findings of a first-in-kind field experiment in Panama, now making global headlines.
Azteca ants, a fierce species native to the Panama region of South America call the Cecropia trees their home. The tiny little critter’s close bond with the trees is well documented.
For instance, these ants would attack any animals that would try to harm or eat the trees. But now it is known these tiny animals would also do some fascinating patch-up works and ‘completely heal’ the trees within a day of the damage, the Smithsonian Magazine reported.
Several species in the animal kingdom are known to fiercely defend their homes and repair them, as a part of their natural biological relation called the symbiotic relationship.
Think of the birds that peck a crocodile’s teeth. Or an anemone and a clownfish! Animals share mutually or singularly beneficial relations to survive.
In the same way, these Cecropia trees and Azteca ants are thought to have developed this symbiotic relationship with each other; the tree shelters and feeds the ants, and the ants protect the trees from external threats.
But, what makes this instance of Azteca ants completely healing the trees in 24-hrs fascinating is the fact that the ants, firstly, defend their host so that minimum damage is caused; and furthermore, when damage is done at all, they actively work to heal it, making it rare symbiotic relationship.
Slingshot of fame!
As exciting as the finding is, the spurt of the discovery, too, is a story of its own rights.
During the early days of Covid-19 lockdown, a bored teenager was firing slingshots using clay balls into Cecropia trees, found abundantly in the region, making entry-exits points into the tree’s trunk.
But the next morning, when the teenager was back to check the hole again, it was completely healed!
Charged by this unexpected outcome, that teenager, and some of his friends then enrolled in the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s (STRI) volunteer program, where they enlisted William T. Wcislo, an STRI scientist to help devise an experiment.
The study, now published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research recorded that the ants used the plant’s fibers and sap they feed on, to repair the damages done.
Within a few hours of the experimental holes being created, the ants healed it significantly, the team noticed, and by 24-hrs it was fully healed.
“I was totally surprised by the results. And I was impressed by how they (the teenagers) developed a simple way to test the idea that ants repair damage to their home,” Wcislo said in a statement to Smithsonian.
But the discovery also raised new questions: other ant colonies do not show this kind of ‘healing’ activity to their host plant.
Therefore, what external stimuli, does mobilize these fascinating insects to take on the job of healing, could be the subject of further studies in the field, perhaps to be undertaken by the children after graduating from high school.