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Edition #2
Networks and Labyrinths
Hannah Kloft 
(Environment)
Edited by Elizabeth Rose

Colonia Mundus: The role of ants in the Anthropocene

Introduction

Honey-makers, plant pollinators, and the beloved mascot of cereals, the honey bee has gotten a majority of the press when it comes to endangered insects. Within the bee’s scientific order, Hymenoptera, however, lives a cousin who hasn’t always been quite as popular: the ant (Ward 2007). Found on every iceless continent, ants have been around since the dinosaurs. Rich with evolutionary experience, there are now over 12,000 species of ants worldwide performing incredible feats that are crucial to the survival of not just their own species but ours as well (Lach et. al 2010). Since the climate crisis is impacting every ecosystem on Earth,  I want to emphasize the need to examine all the key players - starting from the ground up.

Below the Surface

On a hot August day, you may have noticed ants crawling single-file through your kitchen floor or city sidewalk, circling around a tiny drop of ice cream, working in perfect harmony like a well-practiced K-pop band. Where have these small creatures come from? Better yet, where are they going? While their habits are as diverse as the number of species in their family, a large number of ants create their elaborate homes underground in colonies. Some of these colonies can be up to eight meters deep, and some spanning up to 24 miles long, the complex networks of ant colonies serve a multitude of purposes.

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Figure 2 Medium

As you can see in Figure 1, goals can range from protecting and feeding the Queen, taking care of broods (eggs, larvae, and pupae), and storing food for the rest of the colony through intricate tunnels. Ant diets typically include organic matter and seeds, and their removal and redistribution of these is key to soil decomposition and plant seed dispersal within the ecosystems they inhabit - which is most! In addition, the process of burrowing tunnels turns over topsoil, which is crucial to surface hydrological processes and ecosystem fertility (Cammeraat and Risch 2008). In fact, ants turn over as much soil as earthworms, a vital means to aerate and distribute nutrients in the soil (Raman 2021). How do they do it?

Worker Ants + Communication Networks + Above Ground

Most of the ants you have seen are likely to have been worker ants. Worker ants are a sisterhood of caretakers, food scavengers, waste disposers, and conflict mediators within the colony (Durant et al. 2019). Worker ants are highly skilled and multifaceted, they are also all female as male ants stay in the colony to reproduce with the queen. However, unlike other bigger-brained species, ants do not rely on learned behavior to perform tasks, they do so instinctually. Incredibly, even though they do not have ears, lungs, or audible means of communication, they can transmit messages through pheromones and vibrations which are detected in various parts of the ant’s body (Holldobler and Wilson 1995). Indeed, without using words, ants can communicate twelve distinct messaging fields, ranging from danger alerts to creating territories, to sexual conveyance (Holldobler and Wilson 1990). The impressive system of communication that they have created is a testament to the closely-bound network in which they thrive. It is evolutionary networking at its best! This propinquity can be physically seen in the incredible structures they have made.  Beyond their vocabulary, communicated instead by their very bodies themselves, lie a range of awe-inspiring feats of engineering. Ants craft rafts, bridges, and ladders - where the beams are their bodies and the suspension mechanisms their coordination.

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Figure 3 Chemistry World

By latching on as their sisters crawl over them, ant bridges can be formed to connect the colony to the next mission that lies ahead. In the case of some species, like the fire ant Solenopsis, thousand-member rafts are perfectly engineered to float across rivers and survive floods without the loss of any member for hours (Milius, 2014).  Whether you interpret these acts as an example of evolutionary perfection or improbability, or indeed both, I think we can all agree that ants serve as the ultimate exemplar of connection.

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Figure 4 Doris Ratchford/ Flickr

Human animals, nonhuman animals, and the myriad of other species that live on this planet depend on healthy soil for water filtration and plant flourishment. However, we’ve seen the anthropogenic devastation that has occurred in recent times, specifically since the start of the Anthropocene era, and the consequences are dramatic. According to the Soil Science Society of America, “Almost 35% of all greenhouse gases (GHG) released into the atmosphere due to anthropogenic activities since 1850 are linked to land-use changes'' (SSSA 2013). And while soil science may not be the sexiest topic in the world of climate change, much of what the world depends on lies below the surface. Whether it be the depths of the ocean or the soil under our feet, some of the most intricate and vulnerable places on Earth are those that are not seen by humans.  Considering the fragility and importance of ant colonies, we can see the ways in which a heating planet will affect the well-being of ant habitats: as Sankovitz points out, “Temperature is an important aspect of colony growth and survival; the centers of these nests are particularly important for providing a favorable microclimate for brood development” (Sankovitz and Purcell 2021). In a study done at Harvard Forest, a long-term ecological research site, researchers found that ants who live in warm, tropical ecosystems – which is where the majority of ants live – are at the highest risk of species loss from rising global temperatures (Diamond et al., 2011).  In the most extreme cases, an “increase of just 2°C in the ant's body temperature was the difference between a fully functioning ant and one that was disoriented and constantly falling over - their critical thermal limit being around 46°C. At just 4°C above their thermal limit, the ants could not move at all” (Crew, 2021). We can see the gravity the anthropological impact can and, at this rate, will have on some of the longest living species on this planet. Bearing this in mind, it is essential that in order to decelerate the rate of climate change and protect non-human animals, such as ants, and the vital role they play in global ecosystems, we actually look to them as examples of how to collaborate in quiet but crucial ways.

Ant colonies, composed of expansive tunnels, physically represent the importance of community and cooperation, especially when it comes to combating climate change. We know that it will take widespread collaboration to prevent the worst outcomes for the most vulnerable populations to catastrophe, human animals and nonhuman animals alike. Ants also serve as reminders to the human species that just because we cannot see, feel, nor hear connections happening outside of our consciousness does not mean they are not valid. Whether it be a man speaking on the metro in a language we don’t recognize, a child dancing thousands of miles away to rhythms we have yet to feel, or the vibration of an insect we cannot decipher, connections are nuanced and vital. If we recognize our own ignorance of others’ means of connection we can begin to discover the ways in which we are actually all connected.

Bibliography

Cammeraat, E.L.H. and Risch, A.C. (2008). The impact of ants on mineral soil properties and processes at different spatial scales. Journal of Applied Entomology, 132(4), pp.285–294.

Crew, B. (2012). Study tests whether ants can take the heat. [online] www.abc.net.au. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/11/27/3642135.htm [Accessed 17 Mar. 2022].

Diamond, S.E., Sorger, D.M., Hulcr, J., Pelini, S.L., Toro, I.D., Hirsch, C., Oberg, E. and Dunn, R.R. (2011). Who likes it hot? A global analysis of the climatic, ecological, and evolutionary determinants of warming tolerance in ants. Global Change Biology, 18(2), pp.448–456.

Durant, C., John, M. and Hammond, R. (2019). Six amazing facts you need to know about ants. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/six-amazing-facts-you-need-to-know-about-ants-100478#:~:text=Most%20ants%20you%20see%20are%20female&text=Worker%20ants%20are%20all%20female [Accessed 17 Mar. 2022].

Holldobler, B. and Wilson, E.O. (1995). Journey to the Ants pp. 46.

Holldobler, B. and Wilson, E.O. (1990) The Ants p. 227

Lach, L., Parr, C. and Abbott, K. eds. (2010). Ant ecology. Oxford university press.

Milius, S. (2014). In emergencies, fire ants get lots of grips to form rafts. [online] Science News. Available at: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/emergencies-fire-ants-get-lots-grips-form-rafts [Accessed 17 Mar. 2022].

Raman, R. (2021). What do ants and soils do for each other? [online] Soils Matter. Available at: https://soilsmatter.wordpress.com/2021/02/15/what-do-ants-and-soils-do-for-each-other/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2022].

Sankovitz, M. and Purcell, J. (2021). Ant nest architecture is shaped by local adaptation and plastic response to temperature. Scientific Reports, 11(1).

Ward, P.S. (2007). Phylogeny, classification, and species-level taxonomy of ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)*. Zootaxa, 1668(1), pp.549–563.

Why is Soil Important? (2013). [online] Soil Society of America. Available at: https://www.soils.org/files/science-policy/sssa-marketing-2013.pdf [Accessed 15 Mar. 2022].

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