Ant Encounters

In her presentation, Deborah M. Gordon discussed her research with ant colonies, which I thought was surprisingly insightful. Through her work with hundreds of colonies in an Arizona desert, she was able to investigate the behaviors of harvester ants and provide some insight into how these ants manage to effectively execute complex tasks such as foraging, nest maintenance, and patrolling, without any hierarchies or order.

A common misconception is that ants have a central control figure or “Queen” that tells the other ants what to do. In reality, this so-called “Queen” is simply the reproductive female of the colony, and she has no means of control over the other worker ants. The fact that ants are so successful in executing the tasks necessary for life without any clear sense of direction is absolutely amazing. Ants cannot see, and their only means of communication is their antennae, which are used to smell other ants and food. Ant colonies are typically depicted in popular media as huge groups of working ants where every ant is always being productive and every task is executed in an orderly fashion, but in reality ant colonies function in a much more disorganized manner. Contrary to popular belief, about one-third of the colony basically hangs around doing nothing. Hopefully further research will reveal that these “lazy” ants do indeed serve some purpose.

Despite the clear lack of organization and structure within ant colonies, there still appears to be a “division of labor”, which is surprising since there is no central control within the colony. Some ants are foragers, some are “maintenance” workers, and some are patrollers. Much of Prof. Gordon’s research focuses on the foraging behaviors of ants. The way in which foraging behaviors of ants have evolved was especially related to what we have learned in class because ants that show “restraint” prove to be more successful in surviving and reproducing. This means that ants that forage only when the weather conditions are not too dry (to not lose as much water) and restrain themselves from foraging at all times (even in hot and dry weather) are more successful in the long run. This was fascinating because she said that there was a trade off in the foraging behavior of ants; they can either forage a lot and acquire more food but lose a lot of water, or they can forage less and not lose as much water but risk losing foraging area (competition from another ant colony).  It seems pretty incredible that despite the random and disordered way in which ant colonies function, they can still make these complex decisions that can prove to be advantageous. I thought this was a great example of natural selection shaping the behavior of organisms, and at the same time it makes me more curious about how exactly ants manage to make these conscious decisions.

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