Empire of the Ants

While sitting on a bench reading a book as I waited for the bus the other day, my attention kept being drawn to the ants on the ground that were hectically going about their business of foraging for food and whatnot. Insects have always deeply fascinated me, especially the highly organized species that parallel human societies such as bees, wasps, termites, and most especially ants. As a kid, “ant watching” provided untold hours of entertainment, and sometimes even, I have to confess, the sort of cruel amusements now more usually worked out in computer simulations and various so-called “god games” like Populous.

As I was fixed on the ants’ busy traffic across the cement pad of the bus shelter, it struck me just how amazing fast they travel relative to their tiny size and I wondered what this might translate to in human terms. It’s commonly known of course that ants perform amazing feats of strength, carrying up to twenty times their own weight if necessary; something that to us that would be like lifting a small car and then carrying it over considerable distances without even breaking a sweat. Their rate of locomotion however is less well known.

In fact, this question turns out to be surprisingly difficult to answer because of all the different factors involved such as: the size of the ant; the type of surface it’s moving across; whether there is an incline or decline involved; whether the ant is laden or unladed; the atmospheric temperature; the type of activity the ant is engaged in; and so on. One figure mentioned with quite categorical certainty by some “expert” was 2 mph (3.2 kmh). That’s quite possibly wrong for all of the reasons stated above, but it seems plausible enough. Given the average walking speed for people is approx. 3.2 mph (5.2 kmh), if we were to perform a direct comparison by simply extrapolating the ant’s rate of locomotion into human terms according to size alone, it would be like moving twice as fast as a Lamborghini!

Now, while this kind of idle speculation may be good for distracting the mind of bored commuters, it’s actually complete bunk because things just don’t work this way in nature. Ants are no more super fast than they are super strong. The reason ants can perform what might seem like remarkable feats of strength and speed in human terms has everything to with their small size — it’s all a matter of simple geometry and the characteristics of muscles. As any object grows in size its volume and weight increase much faster than its height, whereas the strength of muscles can only increase by the square of an animal’s height (a good explanation of this phenomenon can be found here).

Anyway, long story short… While attempting to determine the average speed of ants, I stumbled across the following video excerpt from the documentary Ants — Nature’s Secret Power about ant colonies that really is complete astonishing. In it, a group of scientists fill a grass cutter ant hill with 10 tons of concrete (that fact alone is extraordinary). After it dries they spend weeks excavating the site to reveal the underground ant “megalopolis” — a sprawling network of subterranean highways connecting the various chambers that comprise the complex architecture of the ants’ “city state” as its described in the film. Absolutely fascinating.

It’s estimated that an ant brain has about 250,000 brain cells. By comparison, a human brain has 10,000 million, so it may be said that a colony of 40,000 ants has collectively the same size “brain” as a human. Some colonies however can grow to the size of several hundred thousand ants, thereby giving it a rather extraordinary collective “brain” compared to that of a single human. Perhaps Mark Twain was right after all when he said that in certain “high mental qualities” the humble ant “is above the reach of any man, savage or civilized.”



Filed under Science

27 responses to “Empire of the Ants

  1. Omar

    This site loads and performs much better than RT v.2.0. I had given up visiting your last incarnation as its performance (at least on my pc) was nightmarishly slow.

  2. Actually, slight problem here, I can’t subscribe to your feed, can you make sure it is turned on? It might just be bloglines being cranky this a.m., but just in case, can you check?

  3. Aurelia — Here’s the new feed for the WordPress site: http://feeds.feedburner.com/RedToryV30. I just tried it a second ago and it seems to be working fine. I haven’t added a button yet (one of the housekeeping issues I’m still getting to).

  4. Omar — It was performing brutally slow on my machine too and causing highly annoying problems such as often making Firefox go mute. Several people complained about technical issues like that. It seems the resource drain from having as many videos as I usually did was just too much — if you watched it load with the Task Manager running you could see the memory usage going through the roof. And then there were the difficulties with Haloscan and the problem of stripping it out.

    Some of the “drawbacks” of WordPress such as its limitations on posting videos in the sidebar and restrictions on the type and form of media it allows users to embed will effectively put some much needed constraints on my excesses in this regard.

  5. Omar

    So is this version ‘Liberal Supporter’ friendly or are there IP address issues with this forum as well?

  6. Ti-Guy

    Very nice. I like the clean look of WordPress blogs, and the features are implemented more rigorously according to W3C standards.

  7. Omar — I don’t know. I really haven’t checked out how WordPress handles comments as far as that goes. In any case, I’ve given up on poor LS and his crackpot paranoia about that sort of thing. Besides, as was demonstrated by lunatics like Tom/Green Tory, there are ISPs available that allow people to post with complete anonymity, so if the issue is that important to him, there are ways of getting around whatever feeble tracking abilities are built into the blog software.

  8. Ottlib

    In Africa there is a species of ant where the colonies can grow upwards of 10 million individual ants. I cannot remember the name of the species but it is in the family of “soldier ants”.

    Unlike Hollywood depictions of these ants they are not aggressive man eaters but they have been known to take down large livestock if one of them is stupid enough to disturb an ant hill.

    I remember seeing footage of one of these colonies on a nature show where a stream of workers would go through a village, with these rather large (in a relative sense) menacing looking “soldier ants” on either side of the stream with their mandibles in the air. Kind of frightening looking for us civilized folks who see the occasional black ant and consider it a pest.

    The people of the village, who had seen this many times, just went about their business stepping over the stream of ants when necessary. Quite fascinating.

    I just hope I never come across a group of ants that say “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated”. 🙂

  9. Ottlib

    Oh yes Red, I like you new site but I am going to miss feeding your turtles.

  10. I like it. It is definitely cleaner.

    I will update my blogroll.

  11. Ottlib — Well, they’ll always be over at the other place. 😉

    Yeah, I do miss some of the gadgetry that Blogger allows you to deploy. WordPress has some of its own as far as widgets go, but most of them seem pretty geeky and uninteresting to me.

    By the way, about the ants, I’d never heard of colonies that size. I thought about 700,000 – 1 million was about the maximum. 10 million is outstanding!

  12. Excellent new design, Red– though, sadly, I no longer have time to make myself a coffee while the page loads. Oh well, I’ll just have to deal…

    And no “Preview” function for comments: edgy!

  13. SF — There are ways to modify the comments to allow for previews by customizing the stylesheet (I’m assuming that’s how it’s done, but that’s pretty low on my list of priorities at the moment.

    Anyway, glad you like the design. I was going for something a lot more bare bones than before. There will probably be less flash and more writing (when I get around to it) on this one although I’ll try to have some running features as well. For example, I want to carry on with “The Day the Universe Changed” and other such things that are generally interesting irrespective of one’s political leanings.

  14. Tomm


    Anywhere, anytime you need a Tory Troll, or, an environmental scientist, just whistle and I’ll be there.

    If you get a little to weirdly partisan I’ll be there to straighten out the discussion.

    Now I must be off to find other sites that discuss ants, the borg, and other LPC related groups.

  15. RT – Well done, sir! I concur that this latest iteration of your blog definitely loads faster on my machine. I’ve duly updated my link. BTW is there some way for non-wordpresser avatars to appear in the comments (as opposed to the random pictograms)?

  16. I believe that if you go to Gravator and sign up for that free service it should work here too. As far as I know it’s enabled to accept avatars of all kinds.

    Give it a try and let’s see…

  17. Ti-Guy

    I believe that if you go to Gravator and sign up for that free service it should work here too.

    Did it work?

  18. Ti-Guy

    Did it work now?

  19. sharonapple88

    Joining the chorus on the load time–much faster.

  20. RT, the only thing I miss is the ‘recent comments’ on a sidebar navigation, and I do believe there is something like that available on wordpress. I know mattt has something like that on bastard.logic.

  21. Ti-Guy — Hilarious! 🙂

  22. Dr. F. — I’ll look into that. Be patient. One thing at a time and all that rot.

  23. No worries, RT. Not trying to rush you. Just commenting that it was a feature I enjoyed.

  24. Done and done. 🙂

  25. I enjoyed reading your post on the ants. Very informative. I actually wrote a short post on ants myself a day or two ago….mine was a bit more violent.

    Thanks again for the post!

  26. pinstripebindi

    Doesn’t their exoskeleton also contribute to their strength? It would be like if we had one of those wearable forklift things that Ripley uses to kick some alien ass at the end of Aliens.

  27. Nice response in return of this question with
    real arguments and explaining the whole thing concerning that.

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