The big-headed ant has begun to drive out native ants that protect acacia trees, leaving the trees to be ravaged by animals such as elephants.
This has left lions with a lack of hiding places to stalk their prey, making it harder for them to hunt.
The discovery was made by the University of Florida researchers in the Ol Pejeta Nature Conservancy, an African wildlife area in central Kenya.
Historically acacia trees are protected from leaf-eating animals, such as elephants and giraffes, by a species of ant, called an acacia ant, that nest in the thorns.
Professor Todd Palmer from the University of Florida said: “Much to our surprise, we found that these little ants serve as incredibly strong defenders and were essentially stabilizing the tree cover in these landscapes, making it possible for the acacia trees to persist in a place with so many big plant-eating mammals.”
The arrival of the invasive big-headed ant, however, has caused disruption to this system, as they are destroying the tree-protecting colonies but not defending the trees themselves.
Having lost their bodyguards, the acacia trees are being obliterated by elephants, meaning that lions have lost the cover they need to successfully ambush zebras.
Professor Palmer added: “These tiny invaders are cryptically pulling on the ties that bind an African ecosystem together, determining who is eaten and where.
“Oftentimes, we find it’s the little things that rule the world.
“These tiny invasive ants showed up maybe 15 years ago, and none of us noticed because they aren’t aggressive toward big critters, including people.
“We now see they are transforming landscapes in very subtle ways but with devastating effects.”
Making the best out of a bad situation, the lions are turning their attention to buffaloes, but these are much larger and tend to travel in groups, making them much harder to hunt.
Palmer said: “Nature is clever, and critters like lions tend to find solutions to the problems they face.
“But we don’t yet know what could result from this profound switch in the lions’ hunting strategy.
“We are keenly interested in following up on this story. These ants are everywhere, especially in the tropics and subtropics. You can find them in your backyard in Florida, and it’s people who are moving them around.
“We are working with land managers to investigate interventions, including temporarily fencing out large herbivores, to minimize the impact of ant invaders on tree populations.”
To get their data, published in the journal Science, the team used a combination of hidden camera traps, collared lions tracked by satellites and statistical modeling over the span of three decades.
The researchers have noted that compared with technological developments such as AI their methods are much more traditional.
Professor Palmer concluded: “There are a lot of new tools involving big data approaches and artificial intelligence that are available today but this study was born of driving around in Land Rovers in the mud for 30 years.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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