When a lion chooses to pursue a zebra, it appears unstoppable. However, recent studies have revealed that these large predators are being hindered by tiny opponents: ants.
Researchers have discovered that the presence of big-headed ants in east Africa can result in a decrease in zebra kills by lions.
Todd Palmer, a professor at the University of Florida and co-author of the study, expressed shock at the results. He was taken aback by the decrease in kills, which seemed to be caused by a disruption of the important connection between native ants and their tree habitats, resulting in less protection for lions.
According to Palmer, the finding emphasizes the significance of relationships between different species. He stated that while conservation is typically discussed in terms of individual species, it is actually the interactions between them that maintain the overall balance of the system.
The protection of whistling-thorn trees by acacia ants involves biting and stinging elephants who are searching for food. As a reward, the ants receive nectar and a place to live. However, big-headed ants, a type of invasive species, pose a threat to this symbiotic relationship as they kill adult acacia ants and consume their eggs and larvae, ultimately taking over the trees without providing any protective benefits.
According to a study published in the journal Science, in areas where they have been invaded, elephants consume and damage trees at a rate of five to seven times higher than in areas where they have not been invaded.
The broader ecological consequences were examined by Palmer and his team by analyzing several areas in Laikipia, Kenya. Some of the areas included elephants, while others did not.
The researchers discovered that the presence of big-headed ants and elephants caused a decrease in tree coverage and a significant rise in visibility.
After observing the behavior of big-headed ants in their natural habitat, the researchers developed a computer simulation to investigate how the presence of these ants and their visibility impacted the movements of zebras, locations of zebra kills, and the movements of lions.
The research team discovered that the likelihood of zebra kills was nearly three times higher in areas with low visibility and no presence of big-headed ants compared to areas with high visibility and the presence of big-headed ants. However, the analysis did not find a connection between zebra population or lion behavior, indicating that the decrease in kills is likely due to lions being more easily seen by their prey.
According to Palmer, lions require cover in order to effectively stalk and surprise their prey. When there is a lack of trees for them to hide behind, they are more vulnerable and may struggle to successfully capture a zebra.
The researchers state that lion populations seem to be consistent at the moment, likely due to lions shifting their primary prey from zebras to buffalo. However, Palmer expressed concern over the inability to control the proliferation of big-headed ants.
The speaker stated that if the invasion persists, there will be a greater depletion of acacia trees. This could have a significant impact on the ecosystem of the region as these trees provide vital nourishment for various species, such as rhinos and giraffes.