Inland Ants Crave Salt, and Hurricanes May Help

October 28, 2008

Salt-deprived animals and insects living far inland from some coasts may benefit if global warming increases hurricane intensity, a new study suggests.

Storms bring sodium—a necessary nutrient for almost all life-forms other than plants—from the seas farther inland, explained study lead author Michael Kaspari, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Kaspari specifically studies ants, which are considered indicators of ecosystem health.

Ant communities with a balanced diet, for example, more efficiently disperse seeds, munch leaves, eat fungi, and aerate the soil than do communities deficient in sodium.

(Related: "Insects Key to Rain Forest Diversity, Study Shows" [March 10, 2005].)

Kaspari's team found that ants in the Americas that live between about 6 and 60 miles (10 and 100 kilometers) from the coast are in a sodium sweet spot.

"That's where the activity of the ants from our study was the highest," he said.

Ants closer to the coast were oversaturated with salt—perhaps at risk of the ant equivalent of hypertension. Ants farther inland are salt starved—and thus operate in subprime form.

Stronger hurricanes, he noted, would bring more salt-saturated rainwater to the inland ants, providing a nutrient boost that might allow them to ramp up their activity.

Kaspari and colleagues report the findings in a paper online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(The research was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Salt Tubes

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