The bizarre world of ants and why a handful choose to study it
Imagine feminists taking over the world. (Just a hypothesis. Don’t be scared). These superwomen then fine-tune their vision over the next generations; set out rules of behaviour, roles, functions; erect hierarchies, until one day suddenly there is complete order. There are no improvements to be made now; no room even for thought—all that is necessary is to exist. In that perfect feminist world, there is no king, but a queen who is also the only woman who will give birth and this she does with great fervour in the order of hundreds and thousands. Men are relegated to just one thing—sex. But to put a spanner to this exciting idea, they die within days of being born. Women live for years. Women work. Women partake in the fruits of labour. The soldiers, the architects, the hunters, the food gatherers, the gatekeepers, the nurses, the guardians of the children, are all women. Mud speck by mud speck, that feminist paradise keeps on increasing its numbers with only one end: to survive and procreate. That, surreally, is the ant queendom.
There are over 12,000 species of ants who live this life, give or take a few variations. In countries where the pursuit of knowledge is not about an engineering degree and an MBA, a myrmecologist or ant researcher would track a species for a lifetime. In India, for the 600 odd ant species identified here, there are less than 15 myrmecologists.
“People ask me why I took up the study of such an insignificant species. They just know ants as red, black, big, small. (But) I found 28 species in Vadodara itself,” says Dr Archana Mishra, who studied myrmecology as part of her PhD thesis from the zoology department of The Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara. “There is so much to be done. Even among the species identified in India, there’s no taxonomical detail for all of them. We don’t know which states have which ants, the difference between them, etcetera.”
Besides taxonomy, ant behaviour is another field of study. Thresiamma Varghese is from the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. One of her projects is on ants belonging to a genus (or set) called Diacamma, which are slightly different from typical ant species because they don’t have a queen in their colony. “Instead, one of the workers takes on the role. She mates and reproduces,” says Varghese. The name for this functional queen is gamergate. Like a queen, the gamergate is the only egg layer in the colony. In external appearance, it is like any other colony member, but only she possesses a pair of appendages called gemmae, understood to be essential for mating and producing female offsprings. The story takes a turn when new ants are born in a colony, because they arrive with gemmae and are therefore a potential challenge to the gamergate’s position. She therefore must now protect her monopoly. This is done in brutal fashion. When new ones are born, along with a few workers, the gamergate mutilates the gemmae of newborns and keeps them from reproducing.
Having known this, Varghese and their team went a step further. They knew that in the Nilgiris, there exists another species of the Diacamma, the only known one where such mutilation did not happen. They transferred a few newborns from the colony of one species to another. Logically, the mutilating species would have got to work on the transferred newborns. But this didn’t happen. And there was another surprising thing: in the non-mutilating colonies, they attacked the transferred newborns. “Our conclusion was that the victims were inviting the mutilation by releasing some sort of chemical (from gemmae) or behavioural signal,” she says.
If you are wondering whether there is a point to knowing all this about ants, then the answer is yes. Sunil Kumar, a myrmecologist who has co-authored On a Trail with Ants: A Handbook of the Ants of Peninsular India, spells out the reasons why ants must be studied. For one, ants are tiny but they are numerous, in fact more than any other species in nature. If you go to a forest and weigh all the animals there, ants and termites would be about a quarter of the total weight. “At the top of the food pyramid are animals like the tiger which are really small in number. The base consists of tiny creatures like ants which are large in number. You can, in fact, remove the tiger and the forest can still remain. If you remove the smaller ones like termites and ants, the ecosystem will collapse.” Ants do many things: they clear off dead matter, they turn over more soil than earthworms, they protect plants from herbivores, and, most importantly for research purposes, if you look closely at the ants in an ecosystem, they tell you whether the ecosystem is in fine fettle or whether it is crumbling from the inside. For example, if you start discovering more of a species called Red Crazy ants in the forest, it means that the forest is degrading and that human interference is making its mark felt. Presumably, the information can be used to take corrective measures.
Also, applications which make human life easier can be developed from ant study. Glenn Fink, a US researcher from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, observed the behaviour of ants and decided it might be useful to protect computer networks against worms and viruses. He is working along with researchers from Wake Forest University, and a press release by the university quoted fellow researcher, Errin Fulp: ‘Our idea is to deploy 3,000 different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat. As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modelled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. These attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection.’ The seamless manner in which a large number of ants move, sometimes over very narrow trails, is also used to design traffic navigation systems. Says Varghese, “One German researcher came and worked on the army ants in our campus. He wanted to apply ant behaviour to traffic systems.” Ants, another study found, maintain constant velocity even when the density of traffic improves. That’s very different from how human drivers behave.
But most such research is done abroad. “In India we don’t look at them as creatures worth studying. I was part of the team responsible for discovering a new ant species found in a park in Bangalore. Even if at a gross level you can find a new species, just imagine if more people get involved, I am sure you will find many new species,” says Kumar. After Mishra finished her PhD, there have been no more research students on this subject in her university. She now teaches in a school and is trying to get young students interested.
Even for a lay person, studying ants can be an interesting hobby and it doesn’t take much. You can go to a nearby park, find out where the ants are coming from, locate what they are eating, what they are carrying, whether they are going in a line or in groups. All you need is a powerful hand lens. A microscope will make things more interesting but it’s not essential.
Varghese has witnessed one ant species called Jumping Ants actually closing the doors of the nest in the evening after their days’ work was done. Archana has seen ants pass under a twig gate at the entrance of their nest. She says, “There are ants which build nests out of mango leaves. They use their larvae as spindles and their saliva as a cementing substance.” Under the lens, you can also see how ants sometimes touch each other to signal. When you see two ants on a trail coming from opposite direction, one will touch the other’s antennae and pass on some information.”
It’s a fascinating bizarre unknown universe which has so few explorers. When Kumar decided to write his book, it was because the last book on Indian ants was written by a British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bingham, over a century ago in 1903. Kumar and his co-author Ajay used to hold ant-watching sessions for the public, and when they asked them for reference material, there was none to offer. But, after they finished writing the book, no publisher would touch it. One asked him to write something on elephants or tigers if he was so keen on getting a book published. Ultimately, with the help of friends and some NGOs, they published it themselves. “There’s very little funding available for myrmecology,” he says. Funding for conservation mostly goes for large charismatic mammals. Who thinks of ants or butterflies or bees or wasps?