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Giraffes are well known as the tallest animals on land, reaching up to 17 feet tall. And we all know how big ants are.
Giraffes are adapted to exploit a food source out of reach of other hoofed animals. They feed almost entirely on leaves of acacia, mimosa, and wild apricot trees. The 18 inch purple tongue is wrapped around a branch and as the head is pulled away, leaves are stripped off.
Acacia trees have leaves that contain tannins, which are thought to serve as deterrents to browsing animals. They are also defended by spines, One species of acacia though, has more determined defenders.
Four species of ants have a strong symbiotic relationship with the Whistling thorn acacia, aggressively defending trees from herbivores while relying heavily on swollen-thorns for shelter and feeding off nectar produced by glands near the base of leaves.
The ants actually compete for exclusive usage of a given tree, and some species employ tactics to reduce the chance of a hostile ant invasion. Some trim the buds of trees to reduce lateral growth in trees, thereby reducing chances of contact with a neighboring tree. Others destroy the nectar glands in order to make a tree less appealing to other species.
A recent field study in Kenya looked at the relationship between giraffes, ants and the Whistling thorn acacia tree. The common name of the tree is derived from the whistling noise made when wind blows over bulbous thorns in which ants have made entry/exit holes.
Scientists found that trees over 4.5 feet were more likely to be occupied by aggressive ants than shorter trees. The ants were concentrated on shoot tips, which are the parts of the tree preferred by giraffes. Trees with more foliage had more ants than trees with fewer leaves.
Giraffe calves exhibited a strong sensitivity to the ants, feeding for shorter periods on trees with a greater number of aggressive insects. Older giraffes however, were less sensitive to the ants, and did not shorten their feeding times on heavily infested trees.
You have to feel for these ants. Here they are, looking after the tree while going about the business of daily living. All of a sudden this 17 foot animal shows up and bam – no more ants and no more foliage. Giraffes 1 – Ants 0.
On the other hand, when trees are not heavily eaten by giraffes, the trees reduce the number of nectar glands they provide to ants. In response, the ants increase their farming of sap-sucking insects as a replacement food. Ants 1 – Trees 0.
So a healthy, hungry population of giraffes is a good thing for all concerned. More giraffes means more ants which means healthier trees. Who knew?!
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