Archive for the ‘Antsy Thoughts’ Category

Today, I came across this picture:

Anthropology

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.

 

Citation

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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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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Since learning about the Fort Wayne ‘Mad Ants’ NBA D-League team last year, I occasionally check in on the team, and it seems to be doing well. Last season, Tony Mitchell was the D-League Rookie of the Year (Are we surprised he was a Mad Ant? No.), part of an effort that brought the Mad Ants to the playoffs for the first time. Well, he then decided to do something different. Which, according to this article in The Journal Gazette, turned out to be going to China for 2 1/2 months to play with the Jilin Northeast Tigers. He also has been drafted by the Detroit Pistons, and, according to Wikipedia, is playing with the Mad Ants “on assignment” from the team.

I find this particularly notable because Mitchell’s trajectory has been Detroit -> Ants -> China, which essentially mirrors my own. Perhaps there is some fundamental property of nature that follows: (Detroit metro area) + (Ants) = (China).

File:Large Detroit Landsat.jpg + Fort Wayne Mad Ants logo =  

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About two years ago today, I wrote a post, “Ant Physics“, that described, and provided the answer to, a mechanical physics problem given during Physics 140 at the University of Michigan. Now, a couple times each year, I get a spike of views on my blog associated with this page. Amusingly, these times correlate with upcoming exam dates, so I always know when Physics 140 students are frantically preparing for their exam in order to get an A or, like me, deciding to not frantically prepare and instead get their first and only C. Such a spike occurred today, and I see from UM’s calendar that finals begin this Friday.

You can check out the original post here, but this is the associated artwork I created for the question:

Ants and Cousin Throckmorton

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A recent paper by Sasaki and Pratt, published in Biology Letters last week, describes an elegant study that expands our understanding of ant decision-making. Their simple experimental design is shown in Figure 1 (taken from the paper):

Figure 1 Ant Decisions

The focus of their experiment was to determine if, when choosing which site to make a nest, ants shift the weights of attributes they consider as a result of previous experiences. Several past studies focusing on many different species have looked at the impact of weighting choices on decision-making, but this paper is, according to the authors, the first to document potential shifts in weighting multiple variables due to experiences. Specifically, Sasaki and Pratt looked at preferences for entrance size and light availability, because the ant species of interest, Temnothorax rugatulus, is known to prefer nests that have smaller entrance size and lower light availability.

What the researchers found was that when the ants were first exposed to only a standard (ideal) nest and another nest that varied in only one attribute (light or entrance size), the ants later exhibited a significant increase in preference for nest sites that were more desirable in that one attribute, but less desirable for the other. For example, the ants that were first made to choose between a standard nest and a nest with higher light availability consistently chose the standard, more ideal nest. Then, when presented with a choice between a nest that had a small entrance, but more light, and one that had less light, but a larger entrance, the ants chose the nest with more optimal light conditions at the expense of less ideal entrance size conditions. Revealingly, the ants that were first made to choose between a standard nest and one with a larger entrance size later chose the nest with the more optimal size conditions. Therefore, potentially due to the perception of rareness of one nest trait, the ants increased the weight of that trait when seeking out a new nest in the future. The results of this tight experiment seem to me to provide compelling evidence that ants somehow collectively use a decision-making process that incorporates past information to shift the weights of preference in later choices.

Perhaps the most interesting bit about the study is that the ants’ style of decision-making has also been documented in humans. As the authors note, past research has shown the influence of scarcity in social psychology, where people will more strongly seek out something that they perceive to be rare. Although the underlying mechanism used to incorporate scarcity into decisions may be different between ants and humans, it is interesting to consider that our mental processes may mirror those of the small creatures underfoot.

Reference:
Sasaki, T. and S.C. Pratt. 2013. Ants learn to rely on more informative attributes during decision-making. Biology Letters 9: 20130667.

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Myrmecos’ Alex Wild has an interesting recent post that has generated a correspondingly interesting discussion about whether or not the common name for Polyergus ants – “slave-raiding ants” – is acceptable. The commentary focuses on two main questions:

1) Is the slavery analogy apt, and does it have an equal or better alternative?

and

2) Does the analogy offend certain groups of people, particularly black Americans, thereby adding to the problem of under-representation of minorities in science?

While the first question is also intriguing, and is discussed thoroughly by others and me in the comments, I will instead focus on an implication of the second question.

First, a disclaimer: I am a white Jewish guy, and therefore my ancestors have not experienced slavery in the U.S. of the sort experienced all-too-recently by black Americans. Therefore, my brief comments should be taken with a healthy dose of (kosher?) salt.

Now, to the second question. What interests me about this is the idea that if the metaphor is in fact offensive to some, and discourages a certain group from joining science, then it should not be used, regardless of its precision. For example, in the original post, Alex Wild explains (emphasis mine):

While I still don’t like the piracy metaphor, I’ve come around to Herber’s perspective that the slave-raiding comparison, while apt, is not ideal for those of us trying to introduce myrmecology to its broadest possible audience.

The implication of this, and other similar claims, is problematic for one major reason. It suggests that science should become less precise (in other words less accurate, in other words less scientific) due to a misunderstanding among the general population. Take, for example, the case of genetics. I distinctly remember in an undergraduate class, a very intelligent professor moving outside of his area of expertise (Ancient Studies and Latin) to pontificate on why homosexuality just can’t be partially genetic, because, if it is, then people would try to ‘cure’ individuals who are gay, through things like gene therapy or genetic engineering (paraphrasing).  Now, I am not going to discuss this complex topic here. But the important point is that the science of the matter, i.e. the true answer of this scientific question, is not actually influenced at all by what bad actions others might do on the basis of the information. It’s a completely flawed way to address a question. Similarly, what words should be used to best describe a behavior, in a scientific context, should be determined by the meaning of the words, not the potential of those words to be taken out of context, read with bias, and used in a horrible manner. If the behavior of Polyergus ants most resembles slavery, then it’s a form of (ant) slavery. If it most resembles kidnapping (Wild’s proposed alternative), then it’s a form of (ant) kidnapping.

The under-representation of certain social groups is as much of an issue in science as it is in many other areas of society. However, changing the most accurate terminology to be less precise in order to incorporate those groups is only undermining the field that so desperately needs diversification of involvement. There are many good ways to work social change. In science, pandering to biases is not one of them.

UPDATE: I should note that Wild believes that “kidnapping is as accurate as slavery”. He does not claim that slavery is the most accurate yet nevertheless should be replaced, but the use of public perception as a reason to change terminology in science is still interesting.

Ant Slavery
Polyergus mexicanus, a “slave-raiding” ant, and its ant captives (Alex Wild)

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