Why are ants miniature masterminds?

As a kid, I’d spend hours observing ant trails, curious to find out what would happen if I broke the trail. It turns out I wasn’t the only one curious! Some myrmecologists (ant biologists) spend their entire lives studying ant communication. Ants are able to communicate in several ways—with chemical and physical signals, sounds, and body language. How? Mostly with their antennae. They also use these forms of communication to recognize members of their colony, give warning signals to approaching predators, inform other members of the colony of new food findings, and grow the colony during mating season (nuptial flight). With these superpowers, they communicate with not only ants, but also other living things!

Ants are superheroes, and in fact help plants in many ways. They act as bodyguards for some thorny plants like Acacia. The colony is able to nest inside the hollow thorns, and in return, they protect the plant from herbivores. Some ants are vegetarian and love to feed on nectar and fleshy structures attached to some  seeds called elaiosomes. In return, they help plants by pollinating their flowers and dispersing seeds. This is called a symbiotic relationship. Some ants are farmers too! They loosen up the soil, allowing water and oxygen to reach plant roots. Ants also help to keep the environment clean by feeding on organic waste and dead organisms. For example, carpenter ants make use of dead or diseased wood to build nests, subsequently speeding up the process of decomposition. But remember, some ants can be pretty dangerous too!

Among all ants, army ants are the most evolved predators. They are known to attack  as a group and can hunt organisms ranging from insects to reptiles. Army ants can expertly search for food, and have sharp tooth-like structures called mandibles to attack their prey. The trap-jaw ant, a type of army ant, has sensory hairs projecting from its labrum (a lip-like structure) and when they touch prey, the mandibles involuntarily open and grab the prey before it can escape. While such foolproof mechanisms prove to be deadly for several organisms, not all are fearful of the ants. Many animals, such as spiders, pangolins, and bears, feed on ants as their primary source of nutrients. In fact, because of their nutritional value, some tribes in India are known to consume ants as a part of their regular diet. The Mavilan tribal community of Kerala prepares ant chutney by mixing ants with turmeric, grated coconut, chillies and salt. The chutney is believed to cure asthma!

These brilliant organisms have not just fascinated biologists, but also people across professions. Researchers have even studied ant communication for software development! By studying ant behaviour, they have developed problem-solving operations in computers called algorithms. Some algorithms have also been inspired by the structure of ant colonies—for example, the Ant Colony Optimization Algorithm. The first algorithm was created by studying a trail of ants as they navigated a path between their colony and a food source. As the human population continues to grow and crowd into busy cities, architects are taking inspiration from the intricate structures of anthills to optimize space. Several species of ants use their own bodies to build  ‘living bridges’ to traverse small crevices. Using this, many architects are figuring out how to use materials with high elasticity to make utilitarian structures.

For as long as anyone can remember, kids have grown up listening to the story of the ant and the grasshopper. Ants are also mentioned in religious books, where several myths and beliefs revolve around these tiny creatures. In fact, ants have even made it to the realm of science fiction. I am sure that Antman is a favourite superhero amongst fans of the Marvel universe! So the next time you see an ant, track it down and observe what it’s doing—you may just discover another phenomenal aspect of its life.