Ants, World Domination, and Really Bad Movies

[The following contribution is by Ant Course participant Brad Wright]

When I was younger I went to the local movie theater to see the film "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids". If you haven't seen this classic it is basically about a scientist who invents a shrink ray for some odd reason, his children along with the neighbor's children are accidently shrunken by said ray, adventure ensues, and a couple of the children unwillingly ride a bee. That's the basic formula and somehow this formula spawned several, though slightly less successful, sequels. Anyway, in the original film the now microscopic children are trekking through what could easily be mistaken for a remote tropical jungle but in fact it is their front yard that seems dangerous and inhospitable due to their very small stature. Along the way they befriend an ant, who they lovingly name "Anty", that serves not only as a form of transportation but also protection. Sadly the ant is killed protecting the children from a vicious scorpion. I would have said, "Spoiler Alert" before that last comment but if you haven't seen a 20 year old movie by now then the onus is on you. After seeing the movie I would pretend that I too had access to an ant large enough to ride into battle or one capable of chopping the heads off of my scorpion enemies or the occasional unsuspecting school bully. As I got older, movie ants came and went but I think it was with "Anty" that my fascination with ants began.

Besides being possible heavy artillery inspired by the fourth best Rick Moranis film or a method of exacting vengeance upon grade school tormentors, ants are interesting in other ways too. Ants are one of the most abundant life forms on earth and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Ants represent nearly 10% of animal biomass in temperate regions and up to 15% in the tropics. Ants also occupy every forest strata from subterranean to arboreal. Just try to NOT find an ant. I dare you!

Today, there are over 12,000 described species with an estimated 12,000 more waiting for discovery or description. Some researchers even estimate the total number of ant species to be as high as 50,000 species! Whatever the exact number may be we already know that each species has its own unique natural history and even its own unique culture and way of life. Unfortunately, for many species very little is known.

Ants can be voracious predators of other arthropods or they can even grow their own food in the form of fungus gardens, which basically means that ants invented agriculture millions of years before humans. Some ant species form symbiotic relationships with other insects that feed on root systems and secrete a food substance called honeydew. The ants get a nutritious food source while their honeydew secreting companions gain protection and transportation to different roots. Ants are known to protect Acacia trees from harmful insects in exchange for proteinatious food substances called beltian bodies and small cavities in which to live in called domatia. Besides being great dispersers of seeds ants are also thought to overturn and enrich more soil than earthworms and changes in nest structure or native range can be used to study global climate change.

It's easy for us humans to overlook the absolute dominance of ant species as we tower above them or occasionally burn them with a magnifying glass. Sometimes humans think that we are masters of terra firma but in fact, ants have been here millions of years before us and will be here millions of years after we're gone. Yet, they have somehow remained so unpretentious about that fact. I for one would like to welcome our ant overlords.

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