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Researchers track ants, discover formic careers

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File photo.

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When it comes to workforce patterns and habits, it seems that human beings aren’t unique in our stir-craziness and “midlife crisis” behaviours. A recent study conducted by biologists at Switzerland’s University of Lausanne and reported by Nature suggests that carpenter ant (Camponotus fellah) workers exhibit career-changing tendencies throughout their lifetimes.

Excepting outliers, younger workers tend to be kept nearest the queen, serving as nurses. Ironically (to our species), the trend is for these to graduate to careers as cleaners in their later days, while hunting and gathering responsibilities fall to the most elderly ants.

The task of tracking six ant colonies was both lengthy and laborious: according to Rachel Reilly of UK Mail Online, the project was conducted over a six-year period and involved delicately tagging each ant with a unique, quasi-barcode sticker to track their movements via computer.

“It was a very challenging task to tag all the ants,” recalled Professor Keller, the University’s head of Ecology and Evolution. But the study yielded tangible results. Reilly writes, “honeybees go through similar transitions from young nurses to older foragers, but this study provides the clearest evidence that ants do the same.”

What’s more, socialization patterns divide along the same lines. The ants were observed interacting infrequently with those serving  a different role in the colony’s business. If Calvin College operated as ant colonies do, you’d likely not know anyone outside your major or department beyond a first-name basis.

Researchers speculate that this social distancing is not so much an exclusion or superiority tactic, but more likely operates as a safety precaution in the event of disease so as to contain parasites and contamination — acting like a quarantine measure within the colony to protect the queen and her young. It is suggested that this also serves a role of convenience: it is simpler and more efficient to report foraging locations when the hunter-gatherers can interact without disturbing the rest of the workers. Time is the bottom line in an ant colony, and strictly business relationships seem to be the norm.

Knowing the socialization patterns of ants may not lead to the next big technological innovation or cure any disease, but it certainly demonstrates the leaps and bounds technology has made to bring us to the point where such an extensive project is possible.

Though many of the study’s conclusions lead to further questions, the project opens the door for these to be answered via the technology that made the endeavor possible. The task was an ambitious one, and has made use of relatively new animal-tracking technologies to reveal what could previously only be guessed at. Entomologist Anna Dornhaus of the University of Arizona expressed her excitement about the research, reporting, “This is one of the first empirical studies that have come out as a result [of these new automatic tracking methods].”

As with all new biological research projects, the study presents an exciting opportunity to discover behaviour outside our own species and shortens the void between us and knowledge of the world — even if it is by the merest ant’s stride.

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