February 28, 2024

All of these differences help us see ants for what they really are: rich in diversity, deserving of evolution over millions of years as they have adapted to the habitats, ecosystems and survival strategies of a world. Dr. Rice calls ants “nature’s Bauhaus creations”. Like the architectural principle that form follows function, any strange-looking adaptation puts a great deal of commitment on creatures with “little room for extravagance,” illustrating yet another of the many ways an ant can exist. “To answer the question that arises from the shape of an ant,” writes Dr. Rice, “the intricate relationships that make up our world must be untangled.”

Naturalist and author Edward O. Wilson discovered this early in his scientific career when a mentor sent him a note about a group of ants with strange, long mandibles that could snap shut. (“Wilson, find out what dacetins eat,” he wrote. “What do they hunt and catch with those strange mandibles?”) A question about morphology turned into an indication of a food web. The ants turned out to be eating springtails, a type of hexapod that can fling itself quickly through the air to dodge predators, but not fast enough to escape the incredible speed of the ants’ jaws. It was a race, wrote Dr. Wilson in “Tales From the Ant World”: “Everyone uses their own explosive device, one to capture, the other to avoid capture.” Mr. Niga’s photographs show trap-jaw ants with mandibles like scimitars or lobster claws; Some can close their jaws in barely a tenth of a millisecond and strike at a speed of 145 miles per hour.

We also meet Cataglyphis bicolor with its long, spider-like legs – an invaluable adaptation if you live in the Sahara Desert like this ant and need speed and altitude to stay cool over the blazing sand. (For Oecophylla smaragdina, or weaver ants, long legs serve a different purpose: they span gaps in the tree canopy while building nests of leaves and silk.) Leaf cutter ants look fierce, their bodies are covered with spines and prickles, but all of that armor is not for Fighting intended, rather as a garden tool. The ants are farmers who bring food to the fungus they cultivate in elaborate underground chambers, and the spines enable them to better balance their leaf loads. In the tropics, they work so diligently that you can see the ant highways that carry their tiny ant feet into forest floors.

Learning the ways of ants teaches us that their lives are very different from ours. The ants we encounter in our own lives are almost exclusively female; According to Dr. Wilson’s words “little more than flying sperm rockets”, which do not live long and are often not recognizable as ants at all. Queens are made, not born; fertilized eggs have the potential to be queens or workers and develop differently depending on what the youngster feeds as they grow, a diet and a future determined by the needs of the colony. Ants also have an unusually high number of olfactory receptors that allow them to decipher chemical traces and messages. In addition to the two standard compound eyes, some species have three simple light-detecting eyes, known as ocelli, that help them fly and navigate.

There are many reasons to better understand ants. Entire ecosystems are built around them, and a large number of species, from plants to beetles to birds, are “ant duties,” which means they depend entirely on their relationships with ant colonies for survival. According to Dr. Rice, Winnow ants in North America disperse so many herbaceous seeds that “removing these seeds will reduce the abundance of wildflowers by 50 percent”.