Archive for the ‘Ants and Humans’ Category

Today, I came across this picture:


This is Figure 1 from a massive manuscript on Cephalotes by de Andrade and Baroni Urbani (1999). It includes the following caption:

Aerial view of one of the lines of Nasca (Peru) representing abstract animal contours (left) and the contour of a worker of Cephalotes atratus (LINNAEUS) drawn in the same style (right). The Nasca design was interpreted as a spider, essentially because it has four pairs of legs. We contend that the Nasca design might refer to a cephalotine ant as well. The reasons for this claim are twofold: (1) cephalotines are much more common and impressive than spiders, and, (2) the Nasca design bears a typical insect character contradicting the spider interpretation, namely the separation between head and thorax. This latter character is considered as being of easier observation than the number of appendages.

I find this interpretation to be quite compelling. At the very least, it’s entertaining to think that the pre-Columbian Nazca people appreciated turtle ants so much that they incorporated them into such fascinating artwork. We really shouldn’t be surprised if this is this case – turtle ants are famous for their well-documented behavior of using their heads to block the nest entrances, and several species have highly specialized soldiers so dedicated to this form of defense that their heads are basically just saucers:

Cephalotes varians
(Image: Alex Wild)
Cephalotes varians defense
(Image: Alex Wild)

Although the true inspiration for these Nazca lines may never be known for certain, I’m adding this to the pile of evidence that clearly shows that cultures around the world hold a timeless appreciation for ants.



De Andrade, M. L. and Baroni Urbani, C. Diversity and adaptation in the ant genus Cephalotes, past and present. Stuttg. Beitr. Naturk. Ser. B (Geol. Paläontol.) 271:1-889.


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It has been about 8 months since my last post, and since then I have returned from China and begun my Ph.D. program in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago. More information on this work is here.

To start off the resumption of my blogging, I leave you with today’s NPR story on ants and how they prevent traffic jams: here.

Ants in a Trail
(iStockphoto image from the NPR piece)

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Somewhere in Bolivia, two men decided to steal some motorcycles. They were excited about their loot, until they ended up being tied to a tree with venomous Pseudomyrmex triplarinus ants. This, as reported via the Associated Press in The Guardian and The Washington Post, was the near-fatal penalty suffered by these two miscreants for their ill-advised behavior. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only tragedy in this story.

In both newspapers, the portrayal of the key players – the insects – is horribly botched. The Guardian refers to the “venom of fire ants” in the caption of what looks to me to be a beetle (certainly not an ant), and fails to follow basic conventions like capitalizing the name of the genus “Pseudomyrmex” and italicizing the entire scientific name. The Post mercifully spares us a photo, but sticks “fire ants” in the title of its article that contains the same egregious errors as the one in The Guardian (having essentially identical AP-sourced content).

Pseudomyrmex triplarinus is completely different from fire ants. Completely different. Two-second Google search different. So is the difference between an “ant” and a “beetle”. And failing to properly capitalize and italicize the scientific name betrays the scientific illiteracy of the writer. But, despite these errors, the intriguing nature of the story makes it worth a read.

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I’ve already mentioned two brilliant men this week who have considered ants in some way. I will now add Abraham Lincoln to this list. In a fragment of a speech given somewhere around 1854, Mr. Honest Abe looked to the ant as a poignant metaphor:

… Made so plain by our good Father in Heaven, that all feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects. The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. So plain that no one, high or low, ever does mistake it, except in a plainly selfish way; for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.

I’m not sure what it is about ants that inspires people. Oh wait, yeah I do. It’s because they’re ants. From writers (herehere, and here) to civil rights activists (here and here) to the founder of Sikhism to saints to Laozi to journalists to philosophers to veterinarians to countless others, ants seem to carry a universal appeal for anyone who stops to consider the human condition. So, have you thought about ants recently? If not, I guess you don’t care about mankind.

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One of the most wonderful blogs on the internet, Futility Closet, recently ran a piece on something called “Langton’s Ant“. This is exactly as interesting as it sounds, meaning it’s incredibly interesting.

This ant is a simulated object placed on a grid. It is given two simple instructions (wording from Wikipedia):

1) At a white square, turn 90° right, flip the color of the square, move forward one unit

2) At a black square, turn 90° left, flip the color of the square, move forward one unit

From these two instructions, the ant will appear to move in a mostly random pattern until, seemingly arbitrarily, it reaches around step 10,000. After this point, it generates a “highway” (why they didn’t call this a “trail” or “tunnel” I’ll never know), “following a repeating loop of 104 steps that unfolds forever”. It hurts my brain, almost to the point of insantity. See below for what one of these “highways” look like:

Additional fun facts: Christopher Langton (of Langton’s Ant fame) graduated from the University of Michigan, and he looks something like this:

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I’ve covered Fort Wayne’s NBA D-League team, the Mad Ants, a couple times before. Well, per my presciant prediction in my first post on the Ants, they are “irrefutably the team to beat” at this year’s playoffs, as reported in the surely unbiased Fort Wayne-based The Journal Gazette. I look forward to their ultimate success.


Fort Wayne Mad Ants logo


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For today’s Monday Mandarin Meanings, I asked my school liaison (in China), Tan Lingzhao, to tell me an idiom with “蚂蚁” (ants) in it. She gave me:

Reguo shang de mayi

This is “rè guō shàng de mǎyǐ“, or “ants on a hot pan”. Quite reasonably, this phrase is used for somebody who is very anxious. I normally break down the meaning of the characters, often with lighthearted interpretations, but here they are mostly straightforward. “热锅” is “pan”, “上” is “on”, and “蚂蚁”, as already mentioned, is “ant” or “ants”. But 的 is really exciting! It’s a grammar particle.


Reguo shang de mayi art


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The great physicist Richard Feynman, like all brilliant men, had a fascination with ants. I mean, how could this guy not like ants?

In fact, one of his books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, includes a rather lengthy anecdote, or rather a series of anecdotes spanning many years, that detail experiments he carried out on ants. These largely focused on the nature of ants’ trail-making behavior. When in his Ph.D. program at Princeton, he casually tested some hypotheses about ant behavior using little paper ferries to carry ants back and forth from a food source. These experiments ended up having a practical benefit for him, as described in this excerpt:

In Princeton the ants found my larder, where I had jelly and bread and stuff, which was quite a distance from the window. A long line of ants marched along the floor across the living room. It was during the time I was doing these experiments on the ants, so I thought to myself, “What can I do to stop them from coming to my larder without killing any ants? No poison; you gotta be humane to the ants!” What I did was this: In preparation, I put a bit of sugar about six or eight inches from their entry point into the room, that they didn’t know about. Then I made those ferry things again, and whenever an ant returning with food walked onto my little ferry I’d carry him over and put him on the sugar. Any ant coming toward the larder that walked onto a ferry I also carried over to the sugar. Eventually the ants found their way from the sugar to their hole, so this new trail was being doubly reinforced, while the old trail was being used less and less. I knew that after half an hour or so the old trail would dry up, and in an hour they were out of my larder. I didn’t wash the floor; I didn’t do anything but ferry ants.

This is an excellent example of non-destructive “pest” control. To be sure, the ants probably returned the following year, and the year after that, but it is also unlikely that other “remedies”, like chemicals, would have permanently removed their presence. These critters are extraordinarily resiliant. It’s no wonder their collective biomass may match that of mankind.



Feynman, Richard P. 1985. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

(H/T Ari).

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It is pretty old news at this point, but I figured that as I haven’t recently given it or this blog the due attention that each deserves, I should now mention that Ant-Man the film will be hitting theaters in 2015. Paul Rudd has been cast as Ant-Man (Ant-Man is the main character in the film).

I have two hopes for this movie. The first is that it is riddled with actual facts about ants. The second is that it features at least one cameo by at least one actual myrmecologist. An obvious candidate would be someone like Mark Moffett, who has been interviewed by Stephen Colbert (in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011), Conan O’Brien, and NPR, among others I’m sure, and therefore should already be primed for the public eye.

But with or without copious ant-facts and myrmecameos, I can’t wait to see this film, which will surely be the greatest thing since the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Because could the fusion of ant and man on film be anything else?

File:Ant-Man logo.jpg

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