CHF – Ant Encounters

In my life I never expected to sit in on a full-fledged lecture solely about ants, but I did with the Chicago Humanities Festival. Deborah Gordon held a captivated audience with her passionate exploration of harvester ants and foraging. She managed to relate how the ants function to topics more applicable for a variety of people such as computer science and the distributive network or workplace productivity. Of course, everyone should also know the basics of an ant colony before delving deeper into how they function, all of which was provided in the presentation. On that day I learned that each colony has their own specific odor made from hydrocarbons, and that this along with food and danger are the only two stimuli by which ants will provide a response. It makes sense how ants (minus the queen) rely on such little individual communication so that they are able to function better as one colony. I also learned a few things or so about anatomy, including the ability for queen ants to shrug off their wings. Queen ants are interesting because they are the only fertile females in the ant world. They reproduce multiple times and colonies can last about 30 years. I also learned about the different roles sterile female workers have in the colony and that ants usually switch roles depending on what stimuli is received.
The greatest biological application of Deborah Gordon’s lecture is how the preferred behaviors of harvester ants, namely the regulation of foraging, allowed these ants greater reproductive success. Natural selection is ever in full force on these ant colonies as the ones that foraged less in bad environmental conditions were able to survive and thus better pass on this behavior to their offspring than colonies that foraged all the time. It was also important to realize that with different environmental conditions, different advantageous behaviors would be acted on. This is the case with rainforest ants that are mainly stimulated by negative feedback as opposed to the desert ants which Deborah Gordon spent years of research on. Lastly, I learned that even a PhD’s hypothesis could be disproven.

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