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Those tiny ants are actually heavy weights.

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In terms of biomass, ants make up about 10% of all animal weight on earth. That means if humans are on one side of the scale, ants can balance us out on the other. The ant life cycle is as interesting as this weight implies.

Listen and learn

  • How ant life cycles progress, including dramatic differences between male and female, reproduction by both parthenogenesis and sex, and why this offers an advantage,
  • How the ant colony structure is organized, from ant queen to workers and foragers, and
  • How researchers are able to tag and study these insects, including a discussion of their time-lapse photography efforts.

Laurent Keller is a professor at the University of UNIL in Switzerland with the Department of Ecology and Evolution. He researches the social behavior of ants and describes some amazing elements of ant behavior. His lab has identified a supergene in two fire ant species.

Found in cooperation with a colleague from the University of Georgia, this genetic difference between the species determines their different social organization structures.

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This supergene designates dispersal habits as well—the queen in one species is large and fat, and can travel far and start a new colony on her own. The other smaller ants can’t travel as far because of their size and the queen begins her work in an already-established colony close by.

Keller shares some amazing traits of an ant’s life. Because they reproduce through parthenogenesis and sexual reproduction, the males are short-timers and only live long enough to mate.

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Meanwhile, the queen usually mates only once, but is able to store sperm and use it over 20 years in a special organ called a spermathecal. These two reproduction methods offer double benefits: both diversity and clonal reproduction.

He offers several more interesting ant facts, including their nest types and the methods researchers use to painstakingly attach tags to each ant for tracking and observation purposes.

For more, see the Keller Group, their lab’s website.

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