Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Fascinating World of Ants

On a recent visit to Kerala, Dr Charlotte Sleigh gives an insight into the behaviour of ants and how scientists have an ever-changing perspective about the tiny creatures

Photo of Charlotte Sleigh by Manu R. Maveli; Ants by A. Sanesh  

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Charlotte Sleigh was doing her doctorate in science, in 1998, at the University of Cambridge, in England, she came across a book by the biologist Julian Huxley called 'Ants'. “In the book Huxley said that ants are very similar to human beings,” says Charlotte. “That sparked in me a lifelong interest in ants.”

In fact, she is known as the 'ant woman', having published two books on the insect. One is called 'Ant', while the other is 'Six Legs Better'. “I have shown how social and cultural perspectives have shaped the ways in which scientists have looked at ants,” says Charlotte.

For example, in the 19th century, scientists felt that ants are wonderful because they are hard-working and helped one another. “They said that human beings should imitate them,” says Charlotte.

However, in the 1930s, when Fascism and Communism were sweeping the world, people looked at ants and said they are nature's fascists. “Because there is no individualism,” says Charlotte. “Everybody acts the same. They cannot leave and set up home on their own. They have to serve the colony. Big Brother is always watching them. Scientists swung from admiring ants to fearing them.”

But once World War II was over, their attitude changed once again. “Scientists became interested in understanding how ants exchange information,” says Charlotte. “The colony is like a computer. It is always processing information in how to act. Perhaps we can make a better computer if we can make it like an ants' nest.”

Charlotte, a Lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent, had recently come to Thiruvananthapuram, to give a talk for the British Council’s ‘Science and Beyond’ series.

When the 'Ant Woman' was asked about the number of species of ants, she says, with a smile, “There are more than 10,000 types. They grow a bit bigger in hot climates like Asia, while they are smaller in Europe.”

And she gives an easy answer as to why ants can always be seen moving in a straight line. “They are following chemicals called pheromones which have been dropped by other ants,” says Charlotte. “The first ant goes wandering about and finds a good food source. So, on its way back, it leaves a trail, which is a way to tell the other ants, go this way. The next one follows the trail. The path tends to be straight.”

This is something similar to how humans behave. “When you move to a new town, you might ask your neighbour the location for the best shop for vegetables,” she says. “And they will tell you a particular spot. The reason why they said that was because when they moved to the town for the first time somebody else told them that.”

When the ants get the food they return to the ant colony. This colony is entirely female. There is a Queen, but she is not the boss. “It is similar to the big city, but there is no governor saying, 'Do this and do that',” says Charlotte. “At the same time everybody is buzzing about doing their thing. Ants work for each other and for the colony.”

But there are few males present. Unfortunately, unlike human beings, males are only used for reproduction. In fact, the male and female meet up only once a year to reproduce. Then the females go out and establish new colonies, while the males tend to die.

Charlotte sounds fascinated whenever she talks about ants. “We should never stop looking at this tiny creature, because there are always new things to learn from them,” she says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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