How Ants Build Tougher Armor Through Their Gut Microbes

In order to build their tough exoskeletons, a species of herbivorous ants use their gut bacteria to process the necessary nutrients. To better understand how this process works, researchers started to run experiments that would help them determine which components were broken down by the bacteria in order to build the armor.

Initially, the researchers killed all the gut microbes in these ants to see what the effects would be. As a result, the ants’ armor was only half as thick as normal. These experiments could potentially lead to new breakthroughs in the field of biomimicry, where microbes could be used to design new coatings and armor for human uses.

This process can also be seen in beetles. Researchers ran a similar experiment on them, and they noticed that when the gut bacteria was removed, the thickness of the beetles’ exoskeleton was reduced and its coloration was paler.

What’s interesting is that these gut microbes are only present in herbivore ant species. Omnivores and carnivores can get nitrogen through their diets and synthesize it into essential amino acids, but herbivores will need the help of symbiotic gut microbes to achieve the same result.

The experiment consisted of the researchers grabbing a number of turtle ants and splitting them into two groups. One of the groups was fed antibiotics which eliminated their gut bacteria, followed by food enriched with urea, which is a compound that is high in nitrogen. The other group was fed the urea on an empty stomach. The urea was also laced with a nitrogen isotope, which allowed the researchers to track how the compound was integrated within the ants. This allowed the researchers to track just how much of the nitrogen was integrated through the gut bacteria.

The researchers found that while the ants would produce some of the components within their armor on their own, they relied heavily on the gut bacteria to do most of the work. This experiment points to a symbiotic relationship between these organisms, where the bacteria are given nutrients by the ants, and in return, the ants are able to build up their armor and survive longer. We’ve written about other relationships between ants and foreign organisms on our blog, from the symbiotic to the parasitic, where a tapeworm gives its host a 10 to 20 years longer lifespan in exchange for the host to be eaten by a bird at the end.

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