Incredible engineers

Ant Ecosystem

Incredible engineers

Imagine getting lost in your neighbourhood and having to return home relying on your smelling abilities. Impossible, you might say. For many of the ants in the desert, it is an everyday affair. They can sense two different smells, coming from two different directions (in stereo), at the same time. This allows them to process a mental map of their surroundings inside their nerve cells, enabling them to find their way back home.

Highly sophisticated species

In spite of the fact that these ants need to travel more than 100 meters from their colony, they always seem to find their way back in the desert. This recent finding is from the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology. Researchers found that apart from using some visual clues to trace back home, ants were also using their ability to smell to travel back in an otherwise barren landscape.Other findings earlier have also suggested that ants also use the Sun as a compass to find their direction.

Some research findings also show that ants keep track of how many steps they take and rely on this system to find their journey back home. It is amazing that such a tiny insect should possess such degree of sophistication.

Ants have always fascinated humans from the times of the Bible, Aesop Fables and the Panchatantra. Their societies and activities in some ways also mirror human societies. For example, in the Argentine ants, the dead nest mates are immediately picked up by the others and disposed off in the ‘morgue’.  What prompts them to do it in minutes?

Research shows that these ants, when they are alive, produce two odorous chemicals. These chemicals prevent their nest mates from carting away their bodies to the ‘morgue’. But within minutes of their death, the conspicuous absence of the chemicals in the dead ant prompts their nest mates to remove the carcasses before infectious microbes and decaying chemicals starts filling up the corpse.

Despite earning the tag of industriousness, some ants like humans can be lazy. Some ants are known to rob the other ants of their food and take over their chemical trails as well. There are ants of the genus Polyergus and Harpagoxenus who seem to specialise in slavery. These ants raid the nests of other ants and make the ‘prisoners of war’ their slaves.

When it comes to beating traffic jams, ants seem to have solved the problem unlike human societies. While our cars, buses and two-wheelers get clogged in traffic jams, ants help each other to move around much more efficiently. In fact one needs to derive inspiration from them to effectively route traffic on our roads.

Research at the Dresden University of Technology has shown that ants actively push their nest mates to re-route themselves to less congested trails whenever the routes become heavily congested. If human drivers travelling in opposite directions of the road could pass information on the congestion of the road to each other, I am sure we would all be better off.

In the case of the army ants where a quarter million ants move nearly 30,000 bits of food every hour, these ants form organised lanes. The loaded incoming traffic occupies the centre of the trail and the lighter outgoing traffic from the nest occupies the outer lane. Lane disciplining also reduces the amount of high speed collisions. The way ants organise these routes has also led to investigation of new approaches for congestion avoidance in telecommunication networks as well.

Working for the colony

Ants are everywhere. They have also been able to occupy a wide range of niches, and are able to exploit diverse food resources either as direct or indirect herbivores, predators and scavengers. What makes ants one of the very successful creatures on earth is their degree of co-operation among the nest mates and super specialisation of labour in the colony.

Each ant in the colony has a definite role and sticks to it. Ants are also referred to have selfless behaviour because workers give up their ability to reproduce, only to help one or few individuals (queen) in the colony. All these features have made them to colonise land across the globe except areas permanently covered with ice. In fact such is their dominance on land that they weigh almost 25% of the animal weight in the tropical regions.

Ecological benefits

Ant societies are not only wonderful subjects for studying but they also help the ecology and humans to a large extent. In nature, ants form an important connecting link in the food chain by being a prey as well as predators. In fact, if these tiny creatures are removed from the system, the entire ecosystem might collapse.
Ants perform many ecological roles that are beneficial to humans, including the suppression of pests and soil aeration.

The use of weaver ants in cultivation in China and parts of Kerala is a well known form of biological control of pests.  In parts of Karnataka, Bihar and Orissa in India, weaver ants are also used in food preparations.

Several technologies and management ideas have emerged out of ant research. Computer scientists are working out new ways to defend computers from cyber attackers. Watching how ants behave when their colony is under attack has given them ideas for a new weapon against worms and viruses.

Ants use “swarming intelligence” to deter intruders. When one ant detects a threat, she is soon joined by her nest mates to overwhelm their enemy. This strategy is being incorporated into security software by a university in the US. The “digital ants” will wander through computer networks looking for invaders.

When it detects one, it calls for an army of reinforcements of other digital ants to join the battle. Scientists believe that the new ant-based system will run faster than conventional security programs which have to be updated constantly to recognise new infections.

The next time you spot ants stealing sugar from your kitchen, it pays to be kind to them. Who knows you might stumble upon a revolutionary idea to solve all the ills plaguing human society by watching them from the comfort of your home!

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