For as much as I have encountered ants on a daily basis, I never really thought much of them. But as I’ve learned more about them, I’ve come to find that they’re quite fantastic little critters. That’s why in this article, I’ll be sharing with you fun and interesting facts about ants.
Ants Have Existed For Millions Of Years
Scientists believe that modern ants first arose around 140 to 168 million years ago. That means that they’ve existed since the time of the dinosaurs and even survived the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event which drove dinosaurs and many other plants and animals into extinction.
Ants Are Found In Every Continent Except Antarctica
Ants are represented in almost all habitats. They are found pretty much everywhere in the planet except for the continent of Antarctica and a few select places including Greenland, Iceland, and some island nations.
There Are More Than 12,000 Species Of Ants All Over The World
There are over 12,000 known species of ants in the world, with a couple thousands more that are believed to be still undiscovered. All in all, there are a total of around 22,000 estimated species of ants.
Ants Outnumber Us Humans By A Lot
We humans have quite a large population of 8 billion people. Yet even that is nothing compared to ants that have an estimated total population of 20 quadrillion. This means that for every human there’s are 2.5 million ants.
Ants Are Ecologically Important
Ants may be small but they play an important role for the environment and contribute largely to environmental diversity, productivity, and nutrient and energy flow.
They provide a number of benefits including aerating soil, helping with seed dispersal, decomposing organic waste, controlling pest populations, and serving as food for other animals.
Ants Can Be Pests
While ants can provide a number of benefits, they too can be considered pests. Leafcutter ants for example, are estimated to cause around a billion dollars worth of economic loss globally as they infest agricultural lands. The ever notorious red imported fire ants are also known to cause millions in veterinary and medical bills yearly.
Lastly, there are of course, the wood-infesting ants that property owners should be especially wary of. These ants can damage wood in the same way as termites and can lead to structural damage.
Ants Are Farmers
Some ants are farmers and they have been so for far longer than we humans have. Scientists believe that ants invented agriculture around 50 million years ago and they continue to do it to this day. For example, the same leafcutter ants that can be a menace to agricultural lands are themselves into agriculture. They use the leaves they collect to cultivate their fungal gardens of which they sustain themselves on.
Ants are also known to farm aphids for honeydew. In exchange for this sugar-rich food source, they herd aphids into the juiciest parts of plants, protect them from predators, and even carry them into their nests at night and during winter.
Some Ants Can Be Deadly To Us Humans
There are a number of ants that can cause and in fact, have caused human death. Fire and bulldog ants for example, are stinging ants that have been documented to cause human fatalities. Their painful stings can cause allergic reactions which lead to a range of medical complications from mild irritation to more severe symptoms such as vomiting, cramping, and worst case, anaphylactic shock which can lead to death.
Ants Are Edible
To be fair to ants, we’re probably more deadly to them than they are to us and it’s not just because we make use of chemicals to get rid of them, but also because some of us actually eat them.
Yes, ants are indeed edible. They’re eaten by humans in many parts of the world as snacks, condiments, and even as part of main dishes. They’re actually quite nutritious and provide a good amount of protein, fiber, and minerals. Furthermore, research has also found that they have comparable antioxidant properties to that of orange juice.
Commonly eaten ants include:
- Honeypot ants
- Weaver ants
- Leafcutter ants
Ants Taste Spicy
What’s more surprising though is that ants have been described to taste good. They’re said to often taste fruity or citrusy and sometimes spicy due to the formic acid they release.
Ants Have Super Strength
Ants are incredibly strong for their size. In fact, if we consider size and body weight, then they’re even stronger than us humans. Ants have been shown capable of carrying 100 times their own body weight. That’s equivalent to an average man carrying two elephants. Also in comparison, the world’s strongest man can only carry 2.5 times his body weight, so we’re no match at all when it comes to relative strength.
Ants Can Survive Falls From Great Heights
Not only are ants strong, they’re also quite durable. They can fall from very high skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and live to tell the tale. This is due to their low terminal velocities which lets them fall slowly. This slow fall reduces the impact force on ants when they hit the ground, leading to non-fatal results.
Ants Can Jump
Jumping is a rare occurrence in ants and it isn’t really surprising given their very thin legs. There are, however, a few ants or more specifically 6 out of 326 ant genera that are confirmed capable of jumping. These genera include the following:
- Gigantiops (Forminicae)
- Harpegnathos (Ponerinae)
- Myrmecia (Myrmeciinae)
- Odontomachus (Ponerinae)
- Anochetus (Ponerinae)
- Strumigenys (Myrmicinae)
What’s more interesting is that some of these ants have learned to jump by using their jaws. Ants from the Odontomachus genus called trap-jaw ants strike the substrate and generate enough force to propel themselves backwards for more than 20 times their body length.
Ants Can Fly
Not only can ants jump, certain ants called alates or reproductive ants can also fly. In some species these alates develop wings which they use to participate in dispersal flights where they fly and mate with other ants.
Ants Can Swim
While not well adapted for swimming, some ants can swim. Larger ants with stronger forelegs can produce enough force to propel and move themselves in water. The rest however, struggle to produce any type of movement at all due to their hair thin legs.
Fire Ant Rafts
Since most ants can’t swim, they’re often doomed whenever they get submerged in water. Not fire ants though as they have developed a rather ingenious strategy to survive being in water.
What they do is create ant rafts, which are basically rafts built with their bodies. Whenever they’re forced out of their nests by flood, these fire ants gather as a colony and link each other’s mandibles and legs together to create a solid impermeable raft that they use to float and stay safe until the water subsides.
Ants Don’t Have Lungs
Ants don’t have lungs. What they have is a tracheal respiratory system which features holes on their exoskeletons called spiracles and the trachea, a network of tubes that branch and distribute oxygen throughout their bodies.
This system relies on the passive diffusion of gas and bypasses the need for a transport system to provide ants an efficient way to breathe.
Ants Don’t Have Noses
In relation to having no lungs, ants also don’t have noses. That doesn’t mean however, that they can’t smell. Instead of noses, ants use their highly sensitive antennae to sniff out the different odors of the world. With more than 400 distinct odorant receptors, these antennae provide ants with chemosense which help them detect food sources and also allows them to communicate with each other through chemical signals called pheromones.
Ants Don’t Have Ears
Ants don’t have ears and can’t detect sound in the same way that we do. Instead, they rely on vibrations to hear by detecting them with the subgenual organ located near their feet.
Ants Are Eusocial Insects
Ants are eusocial, meaning they follow a social organization characterized by division of labor, cooperative care for brood, and an overlap of generations. This social organization has allowed them to function as a superorganism, wherein each member fulfills their respective roles to maximize productivity and resources for the betterment of the group.
Ants Live In Colonies
As social insects ants live in large groups called colonies. Depending on the species these colonies may range from thousands to millions of members. For example the largest recorded colony in the world is a supercolony of Argentine ants which includes millions of members and stretches 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) around Southern Europe.
Ants Are Categorized Into Different Castes
Ants can be divided into three castes, two of which are female and one male. The female castes include the reproductive queen and the sterile workers while the male caste consists of reproductive drones.
Most Ants Are Female
The entire ant population is composed of mainly female ants. Ant queens are, of course, female, and the worker ants that we usually see crawling around on trails and trying to gather food, are all female as well. These female ants are the lifeforce of their colonies. They take care of their colonies, allowing them to survive and grow.
Meanwhile, male ants have been described as single-use flying sperm given that their sole reason for existence is to mate with queens. They don’t participate in colony building, and are pretty much considered useless outside of mating. Hence, they’re fed less and overall given less care. They don’t even make it back home after mating.
So who runs the ant world? Girls.
Colonies May Have More Than One Queen Ant
The typical ant colony follows a monogynous structure that features one reproductive or egg-laying queen. However, some ant colonies may also have multiple queens (polygynous) or even have none of them at all.
Queens Are Replaceable
In many colonies, particularly the monogynous ones, the death of a queen means the death of the colony as well. However, studies have found that dead queens can be replaced..
For example, the monogynous ants Aphaenogaster senilis have been discovered to produce supernumerary queens which serve as insurance for the untimely death of the current queen. They produce these queens two at a time with an interval of several days or even weeks between each one. Should the current queen pass, the first newborn will serve as the replacement.
Some Worker Ants Can Reproduce
In some species like the Harpegnathos saltator, worker ants called gamergates can sexually reproduce. Like queens, these gamergates have functioning spermatheca and can store and use sperm selectively. Furthermore, they also follow haploidoploid sex determination where their fertilized eggs hatch into females while the unfertilized ones develop into males.
These gamergates may sometimes help the queen with reproductive duties or in queenless colonies even take full responsibility.
Some Ants Can Reproduce Asexually
Most ants reproduce sexually or through the mating of males and females. However, there are some ants species can reproduce asexually through parthenogenesis. These ants produce diploid embryos from unfertilized eggs to clone themselves.
Ants Wage Wars And Fight Each Other
The ant world is far from peaceful. Apart from having to deal with the vast number of ant predators, ants also have to compete with each other as well. In fact, things can get quite heated between ants and mere competition can lead to fighting. From small scale battles to waging all out wars with rival ant colonies, ants often fight each other to the death and have been doing so for at least 99 million years.
Some Ants Can Make Themselves Explode
Given the dangers presented by both their predators and competitors, ants have developed a few ways to defend themselves. One notable example of how they do so comes from the ant species Colobopsis explodens. These seemingly harmless ants which lack large mandibles and stingers, can exert enough pressure on their bodies to blow themselves up. Through this rather gruesome sacrificial act, they release toxins that harm or deter their enemies and ultimately protect their colonies.
Ants Have Specialized Workers Called Soldiers
In some ant species, the worker caste can include specialized ants called soldier ants. These slave-making ants are built stronger and larger than the typical worker and are tasked specifically to fight off predators and protect the colony.
Ants Are Slave-Makers
Some ants like the Protomagnathus americanus oppress other ants into working for them and sustaining their colony. These ants conduct violent raids on other ant nests where they kill the adults and rob the larvae which they will soon turn into slaves.
Some Ants Are Cannibals
Ants may sometimes turn to cannibalism when the situation calls for it. For instance, scientists were able to discover a colony of about a million ants trapped within an old bunker. These ants, which had no access to food, survived and grew through consuming the corpses of their imprisoned nestmates. As people say, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Ants Can Turn Into Zombies
Believe it or not, ants can turn into zombies. In one of nature’s more interesting interactions, ants become zombies when a parasitic fungus infects and takes full control of their bodies before eventually using them as a medium to release spores and infect more victims.
Ants Can Carry Disease
Ants are considered to be clean animals, but due to the nature of their work they can easily get exposed to germs and other dirty things that may lead them to become vectors of disease.
In fact, microbiological analysis of ants has confirmed the presence of different pathogens as well as fecal contaminants including yeasts, molds, E.coli, Shigella, and Salmonella. Several ant species have also been identified as disease vectors in medical or hospital environments. Pharaoh ants for example, have been shown to be vectors of Staphylococcus, Clostridium, and Streptococcus bacteria.
Ants Don’t Pee
While ants produce urine inside their bodies, they don’t end up urinating as most of the water is absorbed back to the body by their excretory system. As such they’re very much similar to birds in that their urine is mixed with other waste such as discarded food and excreted as poop.
Ants Have Designated Pooping Areas
Some ants, such as the common black garden ants (Lasius niger), were discovered to create toilet areas within their nests. These toilet areas were characterized as spatially defined and free of other waste material such as uneaten food or corpses, which suggests that they were exclusively used for pooping.
While there are limited studies whether or not they actually pass gas from their anuses, there is fossil evidence of preserved gas bubbles right around their butts. Furthermore, ants also have the specific body parts and the presence of microbes in their gut necessary to produce farts. So it is highly likely that they do.