Ants As Individuals

Often I'm being asked in interviews whether it's true that ants have personalities, which is what I propose in the conclusion of AAA. Certainly! The problem of course is that we ordinarily see ants as specks on the ground, which is much like looking at people from an airplane. Get down to the level of your subject, watch them from within their own beautiful microworld, and the individual differences will become clear.

The cliche about ants (tracing back to King Solomon in the bible) is that they are hard working, but as the book describes, this is not true. In a colony, there can be ants that work all day, and others who lie around and do next to nothing much of the time. In fact, my friend Barrett Klein just finished his dissertation at the University of Texas in sleep in the honeybee. It's likely that ants do their fair share of sleeping, too, but as with the bees it is also likely that some get less of a fair share than others. The hardworking individuals are sometimes able to motivate other workers to get an important task done, but at other times they have to go it alone.

I show in the book that ants are often born into a certain specialization, but it is nevertheless possible for them get good at certain jobs through repetition, as some people do with a musical instrument. Different ant workers for example become adept at finding different kinds of food, or they come to know a certain area around their home best, and hunt there with special skill.

In short, all ants are different, once you get to know them well enough.

In AAA, I carry this idea to the level of the superorganism (the idea that ant colonies act like single organisms, so that you can think of all the workers as part of this greater whole). What I have noticed is that one colony can be harder working or more risk-taking than another.

Even an ant colony, then, might have a personality!


  1. "In a colony, there can be ants that work all day, and others who lie around and do next to nothing much of the time."

    Very interesting. Very interesting.

    West, Brown and Enquist predicted that the number of capillaries in mammals scales with body mass to a 3/4 power and they believe this is the origin of the famous 3/4 power law of metabolic rate. Actually, in mammals (I don't about birds), there are always some capillaries closed when the animals are at rest. And when they need to run or do some other "exercises", they recruit the closed capillaries. I am working on a project, in which I hypothesized that small mammals have relatively fewer closed capillaries comparing to the big mammals, i.e., big mammals have more "spared" capillaries that they can open when they need to run for life. And this is way, the metabolic rate during exercise scales to 0.88, a higher scaling than 3/4. (Note, this higher scaling means, bigger mammals have larger capability to raise their metabolic rate (or oxygen uptake rate) when they need to run.)

    I also have a model which predicted (and supported by empirical data) that in mammalian lung, a lot of alveoli of the lung membrane are not involved in gas exchange when mammals are at rest--they are not active (not working). But when mammals need to run, run fast, almost 100% alveoli are activated.

    The closed capillaries and inactive alveoli are like buffer system which offers robustness (if you lose some due to some sort of diseases or injury, it is not a big deal, because not all of them were functioning) and adaptation (when some emergency happens, you have some back-up resources to use)

    So, I am wondering if the similar thing happens in ant colony:

    1. Does larger colony have a relative bigger fraction of "lazy ants"?

    2. (a silly question) Does colony have emergencies? (like mammals have to run fast for food or away from the bad guys) If it does, are those "lazy ants" active?

    Thank you so much. I am reading your book these days. And I noticed that you mentioned this in the conclusion.


Search This Blog