Ant Encounters

I have no idea why I wanted to come to this talk. I have never liked ants, or any type of bugs of the sort. I strongly dislike anything that crawls, creeps or slithers. I was overwhelmed with the fear of looking at ants for long durations of time, but I was pleasantly surprised when the focus of the talk was to explain their social behavior and communication- plus most of her movie clips of ants didn’t work. Instead Deborah Gordon explained their interactions used to regulate colony behavior through cartoons in her slideshow. After learning this, I instantly changed my attitude toward her talk, because I love learning about the social behavior of animals and ants proved to be just as interesting.

Initially, she proved all misconceptions of ants to be false. I always thought that the queen ant was the “ruler,” but I guess A Bug’s Life forgot to mention that there is absolutely no authority in ant colonies. The ant queen simply lays all the eggs. There are four other important roles to an ant colony- the foragers, the patrollers, the nest maintenance, and the midden work. The part that was most interesting to me, was the fact that they communicate to determine which jobs need more attention to, so they switch tasks depending on what is in demand. But how do they communicate? Simple, they use hydrocarbons.

Professor Gordon explained her test that she used to evaluate if hydrocarbons is the way they really communicate. She dropped glass beads near the entrance of their nest that were covered with a thick layer of petroleum jelly that wafted a type of smell that communicated to the other ants. It turns out that every interaction with another ant creates a neurophysiological  reaction in the ant that elevates a reaction to a threshold, which would prompt the ant to leave the nest and begin its search for food. But, how does an ant know when to search for food? How is the message communicated? 

A forager knows when to got out because of the return rate of food that the other foragers bring back. Ants will only return if they have found food, meaning that if there is more food, they spend less time searching, and foragers return quicker. The ants who are debating weather or not to leave the nest to begin their search for food will respond to the smell of the ants (hydrocarbons) and the food they bring back- one alone is not enough to prompt ants to search for food.

Overall, the talk exceeded my expectations. I have always had a burning passion for the “why” and “how” questions of science, and this talk answered many that I had about ants. If anything, I learned that an ant colony has a very complex form of communication that allows for flawless functioning. They appear to be one organism that seamlessly works together with many different parts. Sound familiar? I did not realize the similarity until I gave it some thought.

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