MAY 15, 2016 7:16 PM PDT

The colonies beneath our feet: ants


10,000 species. Sterile Female workers. Can lift 50 times their own weight. Never sleep. Individuals have two stomachs - one for itself and one for sharing with the others in the colony. Queens lay all the eggs for a colony and live 15-20 years; workers live only 1 year. Black ants and woods ants squirt a spray of formic acid instead of stinging, birds sometimes put these ant species in their wings to get rid of parasites.

These ant facts are enough to astound anyone. However, perhaps the most interesting of all is that despite their highly organized social behavior and caste system of delegation, ant colonies lack a central control. In other words, there is no one in charge.

Evolved from stinging wasps like yellow jackets and hornet 130 million years ago to become social, some scientists call ants a super organism because of the extreme connectedness that a colony's individuals possess. With individuals specialized for particular jobs in the same way our tissues are specialized in our bodies, and (in most species) individuals forgoing their own fertility for the sake of the colony, ants are uniquely curious creatures.

Deborah Gordon is particularly interested in determining the structure of task allocation that ant colonies establish. She calls task allocation the mysterious art of how they know how to adjust the numbers for specific tasks when conditions change. Communicating mainly by smell, as ants have very poor vision that only allow them to distinguish between light and dark, ants have figured out how to function to the maximum efficiency. For a more in depth look at the social behavior of ants, watch Gordon's TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/deborah_gordon_digs_ants?language=en#t-541499.
About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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