An ant species which is found in the rainforests of South America, Lemon ants (Myrmelachista schumanni),
What does this ant provide the tree in return for food and shelter? They increase the ability of these trees to grow and flourish by creating a safety zone or “Devil’s Garden”.
What is this evil spirit infested garden”? It’s a large stands of trees, in the Amazonian rainforest, that consists, almost exclusively, of a single species, Duroia hirsuta, and, according to local legend, is cultivated by an evil forest spirit, the Chullachaki. These “gardens” stand in extreme contrast to the surrounding, heavily foliated, Amazonian jungle. Researchers estimate that the largest garden observed, contains 328 trees in an area of about 14,000 sq. ft., and is around 800 years old.
There is no evil spirit involved in these gardens, just a small, highly motivated ant, known as the Lemon Ant. Once the Lemon ant queen establishes her colony in a Duroia hirstula tree, worker lemon ants start to attack all surrounding vegetation, injecting plants with formic acid (produced in internal glands) which kills the plants.
Once the worker ants, which constantly patrol their territory, identify an invading plant species, they attack the plants in mass, causing the plants to die a slow death. Besides killing invasive plants with their internal herbicide, the lemon ants also attack herbivorous, plant eating, insects which attempt to feed on the Duroia hirstula tree. As the Duroia hirstula tree produces saplings, they are also protected by the worker lemon ants. This beneficial relationship is known as mutualism.
However mutually beneficial this relationship might be, in the long run, it might be more of a case of can’t live without them but in the end, for the tree, can’t live with them. There is a downside to this relationship, particularly for the tree, for as the colony grows, it weakens the structure of the tree as the ants establish hollow passages and chambers inside the tree.
The name Lemon ant comes from the ability of these ants to produce, as part of a glandular chemical defense system, a lemony smelling acid. When crushed or attacked, citronellal pheromones are created by the ant to communicate alarm and danger to nearby nest mates. These ants also have a tangy lemon taste. So, if you’re adventurous, they’ll provide a delicious, lemony treat.
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