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Ants in your pants?

August 7, 2009

Being small presents certain challenges.* Small things can only eat small things, and small things are rarely successful at fighting off big things. To overcome these obstacles, many small critters pool their efforts to form colonies. And some of the coolest colonies out there are made up of ants.

The basic structure of any ant colony involves a queen, some males whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen and then die, and sterile, female worker ants that do everything from taking care of the queen and the eggs, to defending the nest and foraging for food.

To keep everything running smoothly, ants communicate with each other through the use of chemical cues called pheromones. Fire ants, for example, have a vocabulary of some 10 to 15 words in the form of chemical cues. Using these cues, ants can lay a path towards food, raise an alarm, signal that they’ve found a new nest site, announce their caste (e.g. queen, soldier, forager, etc.) and even tell their fellow nest mates, “I’m dead.”

Ants are known for their strength, but when a whole lotta ants get together, they can accomplish some truly incredible feats. In the case of army ants, the whole colony migrates every couple of weeks — just enough time for the queen to lay the next round of eggs. If they don’t take over another ant colony’s nest, they build a temporary one out of their own bodies. By locking their bodies together, the ants form walls and corridors that protect the queen and the larvae. The entire nest can reach up to 3 feet wide, and some reportedly hang suspended from tree branches. When army ants forage, they hunt in a swarm, devouring all insects, birds, and other small animals in their path. In fact, army ants are virtually incapable of foraging on their own, and rely on overwhelming their prey with their sheer numbers. The army ants carve up their prey with their massive (for an ant) jaws, and carry the pieces back to the queen and the rest of the colony.

Not all ants are hunters. Some colonies farm… Leaf cutter ants work together to harvest leaves in order to feed the fungus in their underground “gardens.” They don’t eat the leaves, just the fungus. They build complex ventilation systems into their nest to keep the fungus farm at the right temperature, and they even use antibiotics — produced naturally from Streptomyces bacteria cultivated by the ants — to fight off any alien fungi trying to get a foothold in their farms. When a queen leaves to start a new colony, she carries a piece of the fungus with her as a type of “starter” kit.

And some herd…Many ant species (including yellow crazy ants) herd aphids — scale leaf-eating insects that squirt a sugary liquid known as “honeydew” out of their butts. Most aphids squirt this honeydew away from themselves so as to not promote fungi growth, but the aphids “domesticated” by ants will squeeze out a drop on demand whenever an ant strokes the aphid’s abdomen with an antenna. In exchange for this honeydew-on-demand system, the ants protect the aphids from aphid predators like parasitic wasps, flies and certain beetles.

One species of aphid-herding ant, the Argentine ant, has colonized every single continent except Antarctica. Among the biggest of these colonies is a super-colony that stretches 3,700 miles along the Mediterranean coast, and one, nicknamed the California Large, that extends 560 miles along the California coast. Even more incredible, however, is that the California Large, the Mediterranean colony and a super-colony in Japan play nicely together. Ants from different colonies usually fight each other to the death, unless… they are all related. That means that one group of Argentine ants has managed to form a mega-colony on three continents, spanning the world’s two largest oceans. Can world domination be much farther behind?

Perhaps it’s already here. According to some prominent ant experts, there may be as many as 10 quadrillion ants on the planet already. As a comparison, that many ants, all together, weigh about the same as all of humanity put together. Ants have been around for more than 140 million years, and many expect them to live for another 140 million thanks to their ability to form efficient and effective colonies. Perhaps even long after we’re gone.

* In the spirit of full disclosure we must confess that we are both tall, but we are by no means attempting to belittle short people.

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