Ant Encounters

Attending Ant Encounters was surprisingly really fun for me. The speaker, Stanford professor Deborah Gordon, was beaming on the podium and I could tell that she was really passionate about her little ants. Her excitement got me excited about ants, which was pretty weird because I never expected to leave with an adoration for ants. She started the presentation stating that contrary to popular belief, there is not really a queen; there is no central control. Really, a queen is just one or more reproductive females. Clearly baffling a few audience members including myself, she went on to talk about her findings.

I found it ridiculous how she and her partner took a census of all the ants in a colony considering that the average size is around 10,000 – 12,000 ants. What I thought was pretty cool was that ants undergo some sort of reproductive party. So apparently ants have wings and reproduce while flying? Pretty cool, and after the party have died down, the queen would just shrug off her wings and retreat to her chamber to give birth from the sperm she collected for the next twenty or thirty years until her death.

The other ants do not give birth. Interestingly, they are assigned tasks as either foragers, patrollers,  or in charge of nest maintenance. Ants have the ability to switch to any job depending on the situation: whether there is more food to be foraged or there is a threat to the colony. What’s funny is that once ants have switched to either forager or patroller, no one wants to switch back to nest maintenance. They just make the younger ants take care of the mess. An interesting thing that Professor Gordon pointed out was that ant foragers hunt for food in the same way the Internet works to send out information. Their algorithm for foraging is exactly the same as the Transmission Control Protocol for sending and receiving email messages.

Professor Gordon talked about the family tree of ant colonies. When a queen from one colony gives birth to another queen that will eventually go to start another colony, that is considered a daughter colony. Thus begins this whole idea of grandmother colonies and great-grandmother colonies. It is interesting that daughters carry the same trait as its mother colonies. If a colony is more hesitant to forage food when conditions are dangerous, its daughter colonies exhibit the same trait. This relates back to our evolution unit and the idea of fitness, adaptation, and advantageous genes. However, the fitness of the whole colony and not of an individual ant.

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