Tapeworm infection extends ant lifespan and alters behavior, says new studytext_fields
Ants infected with a specific tapeworm have been found to live longer than the uninfected peers.
Scientists have discovered a surprising exception to the usual harmful nature of parasitic infections. Recent research has found that ants infected with a particular tapeworm actually live much longer than their uninfected counterparts. The study focused on a species of ants called Temnothorax nylanderi, which typically inhabit woodland bark but can also nest under stones or inside acorns.
The tapeworm responsible for this unusual effect is called Anomotaenia brevis and is commonly found in various types of woodpeckers. Sometimes, the ants collect woodpecker droppings and bring them back to the nest to feed their larvae. If these droppings contain tapeworm eggs, the ants become infected, leading to a significantly extended lifespan.
The researchers, led by Professor Susanne Foitzik of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, discovered that the tapeworm affects the physiology of the infected worker ants, allowing them to live three times longer than their non-infected peers. The infected ants exhibit a rather idyllic lifestyle compared to their uninfected counterparts.
The uninfected ants spend their entire day performing various tasks such as gathering food, carrying it around, and caring for the young. The infected ants rarely leave the nest.
According to the study, when the tapeworm takes up residence in the ant's gut, it releases antioxidants and other substances into the ant's bloodstream. The purpose of a specific protein produced by the tapeworm is not yet fully understood by the researchers. They think it helps infected ants maintain their youthfulness and overall health.
Although the tapeworm was discovered inside the ants in 2021, further analysis has now revealed this intriguing phenomenon. The German research team plans to continue studying the proteins produced by the parasite to gain a better understanding of how they affect ant behavior, appearance, and lifespan.