Ant Encounters

Summary: Deborah M. Gordon has been described as “the world’s foremost expert on ants.” She talked mostly about the organization of ant colonies, how they distribute work and manage the rate of foraging without ever communicating directly. No ant gives orders, but they all know what to do based on their interactions in which they use their antennae to smell each other.

It was amazing to me how skewed the public’s “common knowledge” of ants is, although to be fair, much of what Gordon talked about has likely only been discovered recently. Still though, the average American would probably assume that the worker ants are males and that the queen tells them what to do. I know that I did, and as Gordon mentioned, these assumptions were enforced by one of my favorite children’s’ movies, “Bugs Life.” However, the worker ants are in fact sterile females, and no ant directs another. The queen’s sole purpose is to lay eggs and to found the colony. Later in the day of this lecture, I went to see “Ender’s Game” with my family, and we were very disappointed with Orson Scott Card for making an analogy between how the Formics (the aliens) all die without their queen and how ants don’t know what to do without theirs, because as we learned, the queen does not truly rule.

The breeding cycle of the particular ants that Gordon has worked with is extremely interesting. On the same day, each colony in the area will send out the winged males and the winged “virgin queens” to a common mating ground. This way, the ants can meet with ants apart from their own family, thus increasing the gene pool. A virgin queen will mate with many different males, and then flies away to start her own colony, by shedding her wings, digging a hole, laying eggs and waiting six weeks for them to hatch. The males, distinguishable by their smaller heads, simply die off after having fulfilled their reproductive duties. They have smaller heads because they have smaller jaws because they only need to eat for a span of three weeks, their lifetime, whereas queens live for years.

 As someone interested in psychology and neuroscience, Gordon’s most interesting analogy to me was when she compared the neuron to a forager ant’s decision making process. The waiting forager ants make contact with all of the returning forager ants, and when they do, some kind of hormone or chemical is released in their bodies, and that signal fades with time. If enough ants make contact with it in a short enough time, the level of the hormone is pushed over the activation threshold, and a waiting ant will go to forage for more food. This way, if more ants are returning with food, then more ants will go to search for more, and vice versa. This chemical process is assumedly heritable, which explains why some colonies are more likely to forage in good and bad conditions, and some are more likely to stay inside on bad days, and stock up on good days.

This talk also gave some insight into the grueling process of field work and the interdisciplinary approach to it. Through her research, Gordon has worked with neuroscientists, physicists, biologists, and computer scientists. (Her colleagues from all disciplines have gone on to work for Google). To do a task as simple as counting members of a colony, Gordon has to dig up an entire ant mansion, the lowest levels of which are two meters below ground. And they don’t know that they’ve found the whole thing until they identify the queen. That’s a single, tiny insect in all that space that could easily be missed. And doing this or collecting other data for a huge area can result in only a single graph taking up a single Power Point slide.

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