Ant Encounters

Ants. Horrible, pesky things that always try to steal your food at a picnic. Little do we know is that their society is actually pretty similar to ours. Stanford professor Deborah M. Gordon, an ant enthusiast, explains how their society works in a way which can be compared to many other major societies found around the world. She addresses a common misconception regarding ants which believes that one ant leads the others. This alpha-ant is usually the queen. However, this is false, for there is no central control or instructions among the 12,000 species. The females that reproduce are not in charge, they just lay eggs. Their society works as a network, where messages are not being passed on, but interactions are measured.

Gordon explained how an ant colony develops and grows in a logarithmic manner; it eventually stops growing and remains at a constant population level until the queen dies. She also characterized the different types of ants: foragers, patrollers, nest maintenance workers, and those with hidden jobs. She stressed how easily it can be for ants to switch jobs if needed.

Through her studies, Gordon realized that “the rate at which foragers go out depends on the rate foragers return with food”, which depends on food availability to start with. By comparing ant colonies to human society, evolution once again comes into the conversation. Deborah Gordon explained that foraging activity is greatly related to natural selection, where offspring colonies resemble parents in sensitivity to conditions. There is less foraging in poor conditions. The way ant colonies work are very similar to human society and the way we gather food, we obviously go out to get more food whenever conditions are favorable. This similarity can help us see that all species around the globe are related in some way. Some are closer related to others, but we are share some type of commonality. Divergences in our evolutionary history result in a variation of certain characteristics, but the main structure of those characteristics remain intact. Gordon’s elaboration on ants exhibits this philosophy perfectly, since ants do seem to be different at first glance, but actually share a similar societal structure with us humans if you look deeper.

I really did not think ant societies could be this elaborate in their interactions and habitats. I used to think of them as horrible pests which were a bit cute at times. After Deborah Gordon’s presentation, I am encouraged to study other species which I may think are so simple. Through this talk, I learned that all organisms are complex.

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