Ant Encounters

Deborah Gordon, a professor at Stanford who has done revolutionary research in the world of ant ecology, presented about how ants interact with one another and compared their social habits to those of humans (and various other organisms). She detailed the way in which ants communicate and how they regulate the amount of foragers sent out of the nest. The ants don’t actually send messages to one another– instead, hydrocarbons on their antennae allows them to understand whether or not they are interacting with another ant or a piece of food. They primarily forage for seeds, so they need to regulate the amount of ants they send out to find seeds. They do not tell each other, “You go find seeds.” They are able to, without any form of messaging, send out ants when they need more foragers and restrict the amount of ants leaving the nest when the flow of ants into the nest is lesser.

Gordon related this concept to one in developmental biology. When cells are replicating in an embryo, no cell is directed to become a liver or heart cell. They simply do. The ant colony is similar to that. The ants have no understanding of what they are doing. They don’t know (from what we understand) know that the have a common goal being reached. The ants’ foraging patterns coincide with weather conditions because of long evolving habits. Over time, the ant’s have developed a sense of the connection between weather and successful foraging, showing foraging in good weather conditions is more advantageous than foraging in bad weather conditions. This sense has changed because of natural selection.

Gordon mentioned her past research and how she was able to discover how the antennae of ants allow them to communicate. She performed experiments using silica chips, some coated in the same hydrocarbons as an ant’s antenna, some covered in the acid that is found in the seeds they forage, and some plain. She was able to discover how an ant knows when to return to the nest and what criteria a piece of food must have to be brought inside and then to release another foraging ant. Her use of the scientific method, similarly to how we conduct experiments in class, shows me how it can be applied in real research situations. It was spectacular to see how her experiments supported her hypotheses and how it was all a part of eventual discoveries that would change our understanding of ant colonies.

I thought it was most interesting to hear about the correlation between her love of ant ecology and developmental biology. The connection she drew between the way the ants interact and the way cells interact while developing really got me thinking. How could these discoveries about ants allow us to understand more about cells? Is there really a connection? There seems to be. The ants don’t talk or send messages, which is actually less message sending than between cells. The ants do not think about talking to other ants or about their common goal as humans do. Somehow, they are able to collectively reach a goal– it’s incredible! It was also interesting to hear about how they used technology originally for something else (sadly I cannot remember what it was originally used for) to track ants. They were able to draw connections between two more fields and show that studies in one area can be just as useful, if not more, in another area. These connections between different subjects is one of the main things I took away from this presentation. Social interaction across species, technology use across fields, and many other things show how interconnected everything is.

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