SHADMIA'S WORLD

Just Another Guy with Opinions

Ants – Altruistic Patriots

Posted by shadmia on November 8, 2007

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When it comes to patriotism and altruism there is no finer example than the ant. Among all the creatures of the earth the worker ant is the best example of hardworking unselfish devotion to the queen and the colony. Ants are highly socialized creatures and each one has a role to play in the colony. The work in a colony can be divided as follows: Food gathering, processing and storing; Caring for the queen, eggs and larvae; Defending the colony; Making new tunnels and chambers. Devotion to the queen is absolute and great attention is paid to her safety and comfort.

Worker ants are the supreme altruists because they dedicate their lives to bringing up the offspring of another individual – their queen – while remaining sterile themselves.

It is known that as worker ants get older their risk taking increases. The older ants are the ones that search for food farthest away from the nest. Scientists have shown that this behavioral trait benefits the colony because certain risky activities, such as foraging far from the nest, are best done by ants coming to the end of their useful lives – it doesn’t pay to put young workers in high-risk jobs. As a result, younger ants tend to do housekeeping chores around the nest, which is inherently safer than traveling further afield.

In an experiment Dr. Dawid Moron and his colleagues at Jagiellonian University in Poland showed that ants have the ability to gauge the end of their lifespan and to use their assessment of imminent mortality to take bigger risks with their aging lives.

Dr Moron believed that it might be possible to manipulate an ant’s lifespan artificially, and to observe changes to its risk-taking behaviour as a result. His study, published in the latest issue of the journal Animal Behaviour, did just this by increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in a chamber housing an ant’s nest. High concentrations of carbon dioxide increase the acidity of the blood and curtail an ant’s lifespan. The technique of shortening life expectancy is also gradual and predictable – and one which the ant should be able to exploit to estimate how much time it has left before dying.

As the scientists predicted, the worker ants in the colony began to forage further afield earlier than they would have done if they had been brought up in a low carbon dioxide atmosphere. “This implies that ant workers adjust their threshold for engaging in risk foraging according to their life expectancy,” Dr Moron said.

The findings are further evidence of the apparent altruism of the ant. These workers are not only prepared to sacrifice their lives to serve and protect their queen, they also have the ability to make careful calculations of just how much risk they should take based on their current life expectancy.

You might say: “So what? – They’re just ants.” but they may just provide us with some clues as to the roots of human altruistic behaviour.

One of the greatest acts of human altruism is the near-total devotion of parents to their children, which can be at least partly explained by the kin-selection idea. Most people show the greatest kindness to their own children, followed by the children of their closest relatives.

But of course it cannot explain the more conscious acts of true altruism that people often show to complete strangers. It may be because this form of altruism is part of an unwritten rule of reciprocal altruism – I’ll scratch your back now if at some future point I can expect you to scratch mine.

Human altruism may be far more complex, but the humble ant has at least given us a hint of how our own unselfish behaviour first evolved.

Facts about Ants

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  • The combined weight of the earth’s ants outweighs that of humans, and they have the highest population of any animal on earth.
  • They are prolific: the only places without an indigenous ant population are Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland and a handful of remote tropical islands.
  • Ants know how to look after their monarchs. A queen ant can live for up to 30 years, while male workers generally survive for only a few weeks.
  • Ants cannot actually chew or swallow their food. Instead they squeeze out the juice.
  • They have two stomachs: one for their own food, and one for other ants in the colony.
  • There are more than 12,000 different species of ant, ranging in size from 2mm to 25mm (about an inch).

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