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“Ant-y Maim”

Ants wearing stilts.

“To test your will would take the strength of crazy ants.”1

This morning, I stayed in my car — radio (NPR) on and eyes agog — after I’d reached the coffee shop where I was heading for an emergency hit. This story was the reason:

Researchers at the University of Ulm have demonstrated, probably conclusively, that ants can count. They apparently have some kind of bio-gizmo in their brains that tick off how many steps it takes them to reach a food source, and then “count backwards” to get back home. It didn’t surprise me to see that the story is the most popular right now on NPR’s website. Who could help being fascinated by this?

The experiment was this: Scientists followed ants to their food source, and then trapped them into three groups. Then, perhaps inspired by Goldilocks and the Three Bears, “adjusted” the length of the pismires’ legs: Group 1’s legs were lengthened by gluing pig bristles to them2; Group 2’s legs were, er, shortened, by snipping them off at the knee; and Group 3’s legs were unmolested. As the scientists’ hypothesis predicted, only Group  3 arrived home. Group 1, taking comically long strides, lurched far beyond the colony, while the mutilated subjects of Group 2 stopped, confused(I  can’t get enough of this anthropomorphizing!), well short of home.

Then, the scientists observed them the next day from home to food source and back. Their internal pedometers had already adjusted to their new leg sizes: All three groups “counted” how many steps they’d  taken, and took that same number home, in time to recount their fascinating stories to their fellow insects.

Two related things occurred to me when hearing this story:

  • The more we know about different species, the more fascinating they become, and the more apparent it becomes (to me, anyway) that we inhabit one place on a long, complex continuum. Add counting to the list of things we once believed was the sole province of the human race: language; use of tools; reasoning ability; altruism, to name a few of the most astonishing. We can protest that ants aren’t “really” counting, but I don’t see why the conscious keeping track of how many steps one’s taken is superior to the ants’ approach.  In fact, the ants are likely better at it then we would be. I can attest to this:

A couple of summers ago, I decided I wanted to swim two miles in the French River, in Northern Ontario. The only way I had for approximating my distance was to count my strokes, counting 80 for every 100 meters (based on my stroke count for a 50-meter pool, and adjusting for the lack of turns.) I’ll do the math for  you: I needed to count 2,800 strokes. Now, I’m one of the rare swimmers who actually counts his strokes as he swims in a pool, so I had an advantage over others who might try this.3 I succeeded, but barely: By the time I’d gotten into the mid-100o’s, it was hard to remember where I was. If you think it’d be easy, try it with running, walking, etc. See how far you get.

  • This recognition of our place on a beautiful spectrum of life should remind us of the value of all life, and to count it when making decisions (whether on abortion, meat-eating, treatment of pets, etc.). That little spur causes me to question whether the scientists really had to cut off the creatures’ legs in order to prove their hypothesis. Maybe I’m missing something, but wouldn’t the longer-legged ants have proven the point, all by their stilt-legged selves? Sure, there’s a nice symmetry in the shorter and longer approach, but what did the maiming add to the science of it? And if the answer is “nothing, really” then I’d say:

I don’t care much about ants, but every creature deserves to be taken into some kind of account in our actions. This isn’t to say that ants have “rights” but that we have humanity, and the responsibility that attends it.

  1. My favorite line from one of my favorite songs (“You Avoid Parties”) from one of the most criminally overlooked bands ever, the Posies. They’re like an updated version of the Hollies, with better lyrics. As this story explains, bands like the Posies have to scrap just to survive these days. Think about them, not about Lady Gaga, the next time you download a song without paying for it.
  2. A sure resume enhancer for the grad students assigned to the task.
  3. Don’t.
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