The ant is an amazing creature. Alex Wild has a ph.D. in entomology, and studies the evolutionary history of ants. He is also a professional photographer, having photographed ants in their native habitats all around the world. We communicated about ants, and he shared his knowledge.
Travis Blair: What is it about the ant that captivates you?
Alex Wild: All ants are social, and the world hosts at least 15,000 different species. This means 15,000 different variations on civilization, each with their own unique way to make a living on a tough planet. Some species live in tiny clans with fewer than a dozen individuals, others in massive colonies spilling over with tens of millions of individuals. We live on a planet with thousands of little insect cultures. That alone is fascinating, and the different ways in which ants display their sociality tells us a great deal about how different ways of being social work in different circumstances.
Also, ants are nearly everywhere, and most places host dozens of species. That means everywhere I travel will have plenty of little alien civilizations for me to enjoy watching.
Travis: You have photographed ants around the world. Which country has the most fascinating specimens?
Alex: All of them. Seriously. Each ant is unique and does something unusual, even if we haven’t discovered what that is just yet. Ants that live in rainforest canopies glide back to tree trunks when they fall. Ants in the American deserts stage massive ritual battles so they can adjust territorial boundaries without a slaughter. Ants in my yard in Urbana, Illinois kidnap young ants from other nests so that the stolen workers end up laboring in their captor’s colony. There’s a great deal of drama out there, if we just look for it.
Of course, tropical forests hold more species than most other places, and that makes countries like Colombia and southeast Asia fertile ground for discovery.
Travis: Everyone seems to know the ant as a hard worker. What fact, either about one species or every ant, would surprise people?
Alex: If you watch ants inside their nests for any length of time, you’ll realize we’ve been duped about the industriousness of ants. Most ants, most of the time, do nothing. We only think of ants as busy for the frenetic activity apparent at the surface. But those are the active ants; underground, many of their sisters are sleeping.
Travis: What, if any, useful scientific discoveries have come from studying the ant?
Alex: Scientific discoveries from ants tend to fall into two categories.
First are direct results that tell us about ants themselves: what species look like, where they live, how they behave, why they organize their lives in particular ways. This knowledge about the appearance and habits of ants may seem arcane, but it also helps us figure out which species are pests (a few), which are beneficial (most of them), which ants we may expect to see in any particular place, and from where new pests are arriving.
The second are the results bearing broader implications for how larger systems work. After all, ants are just another iteration of the same evolutionary processes that produce all life, and the same physical processes that organize everything else. Ants are the way they are for the same reasons we are the way we are, perhaps their solutions aren’t the same as ours, but they play on the same field. Thus, learning about ants, and any other organism, really, can tell us something about life in general. Ants have, for example, provided some key bits of evidence confirming Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection.
Ants are also masters of efficiency. Learning how ants do it has had some tremendous side benefits for us. For example, major shipping companies and airlines now use math first developed to understand ant trails to save millions of dollars every year in fuel costs.
Travis: One of my favorite sci-fi movies is ‘Them!’ If the body of an ant could theoretically support itself at a larger size, what do you think would happen if a species of ant grew to even the size of a large dog?
Alex: Giant ants are physically impossible (a large ant would suffocate, as the insect respiratory system can’t supply enough oxygen to an animal that size). But if ants were that big, we’d pretty much all be ant food.