Gal Science: Ant Lab FAQ -The Toast

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As The Toast searches for its one true Gal Scientist, we will be running a ton of wonderful one-off pieces by female scientists of all shapes and sizes and fields and education levels, which we are sure you will enjoy. They’ll live here, so you can always find them. 

Wait, what? Ants???

Yes! I am currently employed as a research assistant in a lab with three captive colonies of leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes.) These ants come from South and Central American countries and have complex social structures, which I’ll discuss later. Similar to bees, they have a large queen, soldiers, and worker ants that accomplish different duties depending on their size. They are a reddish-brown color with sharp mandibles (jaws) and spikes on their backs. Wild colonies can grow to include millions of ants, but captive colonies like ours don’t get that big for lack of space. Here’s a close up photo of one of the ants cutting a leaf:

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 8.44.50 AM

To cut, the ants use one tooth as an anchor and the other tooth is pulled through the leaf in a circular pattern.

What’s so special about these ants?

Leafcutter ants form the largest and most socially complex communities second to humans! Like some other species in the order hymenoptera, which includes wasps, bees, and ants, leaf-cutter ants are eusocial. Eusocial animals share the following characteristics: “cooperation in caring for the young; reproductive division of labor, with more or less sterile individuals working on behalf of individuals engaged in reproduction; and overlap of at least two generations of life stages capable of contributing to colony labor” (Holldobler and Wilson 1990.)

In other words, many adults from many generations live and work together, caring for one queen’s young, and they accomplish different tasks depending on certain factors. You may be wondering why all of these ants agree to babysit offspring that do not belong to them, and why they agree to a lot of hard labor when their queen lays around all day. Part of this has to do with inclusive fitness and haplodiploidy. Haplodiploidy is a sex-determination system when females are diploid or come from fertilized eggs and males are haploid or come from unfertilized eggs. So males have 100% of their mother’s genes and females have 50%. Because all the workers are sisters where their mom is the (diploid) queen and dad is their (haploid) brother, they share 75% of each other’s genes. If the ants had their own offspring their babies would only share 50% of their genes, thus making it more genetically beneficial for sisters to take care of each other over any other relative.

However, being haplodiploid is not a requirement for eusociality: animals like termites and mole rats do not follow haplodiploid reproduction but they are eusocial. So scientists are not entirely sure how and why eusociality evolved in animals, which is one of the reasons why it’s so interesting to me. Animals in social groups do get a variety of benefits from living and working together- mainly protection and a food supply, but there is still so much to learn about these complex behaviors and systems.

For an idea of how big ant nests in the wild can get, here’s a still from this video that shows the aftermath of pouring ten tons of concrete into a leaf cutter ant nest (different species than ours) and excavating the results. The spherical chambers are a bunch of fungus gardens! 


Do ants have a ‘hive mind’ or a collective consciousness?

That’s a question scientists are still trying to figure out. Many consider ants and other eusocial animals a “superorganism” or an organism consisting of many organisms that cannot survive on their own. So each ant is like a neuron working together with other neurons to form one functioning brain. Without their fungus and their queen and other workers, a lone ant wouldn’t survive for long. But that question is so hard to even begin to answer because there’s so much we still don’t know. How do ants know what their specific job is? Do ants communicate to each other about what the colony should be doing? A vague answer would be “pheromones, probably” but even that is difficult to start studying.

I asked my coworker, who has worked here longer than me and has done more research, and he said yes, he thinks they do have a collective consciousness. He compared them working together to individual heart cells in a petri dish, that at first all beat at different rates, but when brought closer together, start to sync up and beat as one. Or how when people who menstruate spend enough time together, their cycles may sync up. Some argue that if ants are a superorganism, then the biosphere is also a superorganism. Or even humans, with the millions of bacteria in our gut that we cannot survive without, could be considered a superorganism.

So they eat leaves?

Well, no. They cut the leaves into discs, which they bring back to their nest and chomp them up into tinier pieces so they can grow a fungus on the leaves, and they eat that fungus. The fungus would not exist without this symbiotic relationship, as the ants and this particular species of fungus have been coevolving for millions of years. So basically, these ants are farmers growing and eating a crop of food! Some other species of ants go even farther and ‘farm’ aphids, keeping the aphids fed and safe while eating a sweet secretion that the aphids produce. But this is a whole different story so I won’t go on about that.

What is your job?

My job mostly involves microwaving leaves. But what I’m really doing is collecting data on the dry weight of the leaves we give the ants, measuring everything that comes out and everything that goes in for a hypothesis about their efficiency in caloric use. I feed the ants every day with blackberry leaves (taking out any leaves they don’t eat) and I make sure the ants are ~living their best lives~ in their tanks and tubes. My goal is to build up the colonies so we can start behavioral research along with the other research we are doing. I also help in general maintenance of the colony, setting up chambers for their waste (ants are very organized and clean) and solving issues that may arise in the lab.

What research are you doing?

A lot. Our current grant research is mainly looking into/analyzing biomaterials produced by ants and other organisms. We have a few projects going on having to do with the sharpness and wear of the ants mandibles which involves dissecting ant heads under a microscope with scalpels and tweezers and taking photos to measure the sharpness of their teeth. One project involves dissecting the teeth/claws of lots of different organisms and measuring the sharpness of those tools as well.

Other lab projects that I’m not actively working on involve figuring out the fracture resistance of ant mandibles and other invertebrate tools like spider fangs. These tools are very strong, so we’re attempting to find the amount of force required to fracture the fang/mandible/tooth. Another project simulates wear on an invertebrate’s tooth using a hand-built machine (made from a turntable connected to sandpaper) that sands down the tooth; this involves dissecting out a barely visible worm tooth and mounting it on the tip of a pin to be worn down and then photographed. Some past research we conducted involved figuring out if ants can judge the shortest distance to their nest, and our data shows that they can and do. We also found out how much cutting gets done outside of the nest versus inside of the nest (around 90% of the cutting occurs in the nest). The cool thing about my lab is that it’s mostly undergraduates working here, and if we have an idea that we would like to turn into an experiment, our boss is very open to us making a plan and following through on it.

Do they bite you?

I have been bitten, but it’s usually because I’m not being careful. I pick up the ants between two fingers just behind their head so they can’t bite me but sometimes I get impatient and just grab them anywhere, which results in sometimes getting bit. They are more hostile when I reach in their main chamber where their queens and babies live, the areas where we feed them are connected to this by plastic tubes to mimic their underground tunnels in the wild. I’m also pretty fast picking them up and putting them back in their tanks so they don’t have a big chance to bite. But some of the larger workers or “majors” could draw blood if they wanted to. But most of the minor injuries I sustain are from blackberry thorns.

Do they ever escape?

Oh yes, and for it is for this very reason that my coworker/boss have created an ANT VACUUM. (Really).

What do the queens do?

The queens are the founders of the entire colony. It all starts with the nuptial flight, when the ‘virgin queen’ produced by an older colony’s queen flies away from her nest where she mates with male(s) (who die soon after–misandry?) and finds somewhere to start her nest in the soil or some plant. Only a small fraction of new queens’ colonies actually survive because it takes a lot of energy to create a nest from scratch, and many queens are eaten or die before they can even mate. For leafcutter ants, the new queen keeps a tiny piece of the fungus they eat in a pouch and uses that to create the first nest material. She lays a few eggs and survives off her fat stores and shed wings until she has enough workers to maintain the fungus. After this initial period of growth, the queens are tended to by workers and have the sole purpose of reproduction. We have three queens, each with her own colony (who I have named Yonce, Nicki and RihRih) who had a small nest already established when we received them from a zoo, so the colonies’ main goals right now are growth.


(this is a queen)

Are there a lot of people doing ant research?

In the U.S., not a lot. My boss says around ten labs are currently researching ants, and this small number is partly because of a backlash from the media criticizing ant research because it was deemed unimportant. In 2010, senators John McCain and Tom Coburn published a 74 page document titled “Summertime Blues: 100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues” where they listed projects funded by the stimulus bill of 2009 that they deemed unimportant of useless. Number 6 was $1.9 million awarded to the California Academy of Sciences for ant research in Madagascar, which they wrote seemed “both laudable and arcane.” 

What they failed to mention was that this money was being spent over 5 years, and that the project leader Brian Fisher is not only researching the ants themselves, but human impact on ants, which could help address issues about climate change and biodiversity for other ecosystems. Just because an organism seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things, does not mean it is, especially in the case of ants.

Should I be afraid of leafcutter ants attacking me and my plants?

If you don’t live in South or Central America or parts of the southern U.S., no. And if you do, you probably already know about any ants that may cause harm in your area. Their main objective is to collect leaves and protect their queen, so they really shouldn’t attack you unless you harass them. They are a bigger threat to trees and plants, and can cause deforestation if the colony is large enough.

How well does Animorphs portray the ant experience?

After googling “animorph ants” it seems that the Animorphs series portrays some individuals morphing into black garden ants, which are different from leafcutter ants but have similar social structures. One wiki article for The Capture says that “Temrash again tries to escape, this time as an ant, but is forced back by an enemy ant colony.” Which actually does happen. If I put an ant from one of our colonies into a different colony, it would get attacked and killed because they communicate through pheremones and would not recognize the intruder ant.

This posed a problem when we were trying to paint individual ants to track their behavior (yes, I painted ants with a toothpick), but the unfamiliar scent of the paint caused ants to attack their own sisters. This was solved by gassing the ants with CO2 to knock them out, which made other ants less hostile for some reason. Although this didn’t always work and one day I had to reach in and pick up a wad of fighting ants to pull them off the poor painted ant. I ended up gassing the entire wad of ants and picking them apart.

I have a bunch of ants in my house, how can I kill them?

I don’t know because my job involves KEEPING ANTS ALIVE. (Probably poison though.)

Can you take the ants home with you to watch them?

No, because they are considered a bioterrorist threat. Seriously. I had to sign a form that made sure I wouldn’t take them out of the lab because they could hypothetically destroy all the plants in the area. BUT this wouldn’t happen because the climate where I live is not suitable for them and they would most likely die.

What have you learned the most working in the lab?

The most useful things I have learned have to do with the different complicated processes and failures that occur in the science world. My boss says most scientific papers and studies are 80% science and 20% bullshit, so I’ve learned to take everything I learn in science classes with a grain of salt. Science is inherently biased because it is a human created (and mostly white male created) thing, so science is not the answer to everything ever. Scientists make mistakes and theories are proven wrong and life goes on. I’ve learned that the process of submitting a paper is long and arduous and requires a lot of time and money. And sometimes even after all of your hard work that paper gets rejected. The process of getting a grant is even longer and more arduous. I’ve learned that there are so many things that science cannot explain and that for some things it may never be able to, and that’s ok. I’ve also learned that ants are pretty damn amazing.

Julie Twitchell is an undergraduate biology student minoring in Women's and Gender studies at the University of Oregon. When she isn't hanging out with ants, she enjoys embroidering, playing music, cooking vegan treats, and working to dismantle the patriarchy.

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