Ants saw strange treatment for injured trees, never seen before behavior

Ants in Panama have been observed fixing injured trees – a behavior never seen before.


When holes were made in the trunks of Cecropia trees, the ants came out of their homes to heal the wounds, significantly reducing the size of the holes within 2 1/2 hours and completely healing them within 24 hours. .

The details of this newly discovered behavior were published in Hymenoptera Research Journal, Azteca ants and Cecropia trees are known to have a symbiotic relationship, with the ants using the trees as their homes.


The trunk is like an ant apartment, as the tree grows more floors are added. Inside are passageways that allow ants to move around, with small openings to let them out. In lieu of their home, ants protect Cecropia leaves from herbivores.

William Wislow, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, was at home during the pandemic when his twin sons and their friends were playing with a slingshot and a clay ball. One of them was targeting the leaves of the Cecropia tree, but accidentally hit the trunk, leaving a hole in it.


Wcislo was taking care of the tree as a project. I saw a ball of clay making a hole in the trunk near the top of a small Cecropia tree that I was keeping as a pet during the pandemic, and wondered if the queen ant was injured,” he said. Told newsweek, “I feared that my Cecropia-Azteca association had suffered a mortal wound. When we found out the next day that all the holes had healed, I was shocked.”

To find out what had happened, Wcislo, his sons and their friends conducted an experiment. They were digging holes in Cecropia trees around the local area and charting the response of Aztec ants. The ants would come out of the trees and run towards the injured area and start healing it. The workforce will consist of seven to 10 ants and will work from inside and outside the tree. They patched the pores with plant fibers that were bound to a liquid, believed to be the sap of the tree.

“Once the hole was sealed, they continued to apply plant material to completely fill it,” the team wrote. “Eventually the plant made its own scar tissue, which varied in color, texture and durability. The initial diameter of the opening was significantly reduced by the ants after 2.5 hours. After 24 hours the ants found the opening or the diameter of these holes. further reduced. Was completely sealed.”


Images showing the holes drilled and the ants coming to fix them.
Wcislo et al/Journal of Hymenoptera Research

Wcislo said that while there are many examples of insects and other animals repairing their homes when they are damaged, only a few of these use other living species as habitat. “To my knowledge, this is the first time home repair behavior has been shown to heal surviving partners,” he said.

Wcislo said that not all Aztec ants were found to fixate on their Cecropia trees and the reason for this is not known, but it is likely that they would damage their plant when it would “threate their brood.” “So my colleagues and I speculate that there were two possible reasons why some didn’t respond within 24 hours.

“In some cases the holes were drilled in an internode (chamber) near the base of a large tree, while the chambers occupied by the ants were too far into the top of the tree, so such a wound was less of an immediate danger to the ants. If so, we predict that if we had given them more time, such colonies would eventually move around to recover the damage.”


Many ants synthesize chemicals with antimicrobial properties. Wcislo said the next step in the research is to find out if they are secreting those chemicals while making their repair.

“If so, that would be a huge benefit to the plant, and then flip from volunteering solely to being an example of mutual aid!”

Cecropia tree
File photo of Cecropia tree. Ants live in these trees, healing them when they are injured.
Getty Images