4/26/10

Ants

This is a paragraph from a section of a novel called Anthill, by entomology professor/naturalist Edward O. Wilson. This excerpt from the novel was published in The New Yorker, to which I subscribe, and when I flipped to it my first thought was to just keep flipping, because who wants to read a story about ants? But then I read the first paragraph, and then the second, and by then I was so engrossed that I couldn't put it down, and I read the whole story and wished for more. Anyway, this paragraph is about an ant traveling to a rival antbed to gauge their strength:

As the elite scout left on her journey, she remembered the route more or less precisely. She had been to the Trailhead territory before, and she carried a compass in her head, using the sun as a lodestar. This reliance on the sun could have been the source of a huge error for an ant, because the sun travels across the sky, its angle constantly changing. However, each ant also has a biological clock, set to the twenty-four-hour cycle and run with a precision far beyond the capacity of an unaided human brain. Using her clock, the scout was able to adjust her trajectory and stay on track.

Fascinating. I also learned that a queen ant can live for twenty years or more. Twenty years! An ant! Also, anthills contain "burial chambers" where ants dispose of all kinds of debris, including the corpses of their fellow ants, which are detected by smell alone; the "corpse carrier" ants are shunned by other ants. Also, as ants get older and weaker, they are sent out to the nest periphery to forage -- the most dangerous job for an ant -- because the loss of a weak ant is less detrimental to the anthill than the loss of a strong ant. This is the major difference between our species, says the author: "Humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies."

So now you know something about ants. Don't you want to learn more? Or is it just me?

3 comments:

aimee said...

Just this weekend some friends and I were discussing how fascinating ants were. In particular, the fire ant. Did you know a scientist, Dr. Walter Tschinkel, actually has molten metal casts of ant colonies? Here is a link to a picture of one: http://www.animalpicturesarchive.com/Arch05/1147141348.jpg

He pours hot metal down an ant colony and then digs it up to see how it is made. Very cool.

That does sound like an interesting read.

Karen said...

That does sound interesting. How much better would our human world be if we sent old ladies to war?

Chris said...

Coolness.