May 18, 2010
My name is Vani. I am 9 years old. I like many sports such as soccer. I have 1 brother and 2 sisters. Also, I have many friends. They are all nice. Can you tell me a little bit of information about yourself? I will be happy if you do.
Mr Evangelista told me on his blog that you will be studying ants in Panama so I have a few questions for you about ants. Where are ants mostly found? Do all ants live in an anthill? How long is an ants life span? What do ants mostly eat? Do ants have close relatives? How do ants protect themselves? How many types of ants are there? These are the questions I have for you.
Good luck finding ants in the field!
A third grade student,
Thank you for your letter, and I’m sorry I missed getting to see the hard copy with all the pictures. Maybe if I ask him very nicely, Mr. Evangelista will scan the pictures in Berkeley and send them on to me so I can see them!
In answer to your questions, I am 28 years old and also enjoy many sports, like bicycling and rock climbing. I have played soccer a bunch of times, but I’m not very good at it. One time when I was playing soccer I bent my knee backwards by accident, and ever since then it hasn’t worked very well. I have one brother, who is three years younger than me and has red hair. Even the hair on his arms and legs are red! His name is Doctor B.N. and he is mostly nice.
Your questions about ants are all very good! Ants are found almost everywhere, although they don’t like cold places like Antarctica, and they need oxygen like we humans do, and so can’t live underwater. Not all ants live in an anthill – the ants that I study, called Cephalotes (which sounds like SEH – FAH – LOW – TEES) all live in trees, usually inside dead branches. Beetles eat the wood in the branches and make tunnels, and then the ants move in and make it into their home! Some of the ants that I study live in small nests, with only a few hundred ants in each one, and some live in big nests with over 20,000 ants! That’s a lot of ants, but it’s a small nest compared to the ones that leafcutter ants live in, where there are usually millions of ants. Here’s a not-very-good photo that I took of some leaf cutter ants here in Panama – see how one is carrying a little piece of a leaf?
You might be thinking that it’s carrying that leaf because it wants to eat it, but that’s not quite true – trees don’t like having their leaves eaten, so they try to make sure they taste really bad. The leaf cutter ants don’t like the leaves, but they have found a fungus (mushrooms like what you put on pizza are a kind of fungus) that does! The fungus eats the leaves that the ants bring, and the ants eat the fungus, which they think is tasty.
Other ants that are very common here in Panama are army ants, and they never stay in the same place for long. They move their entire colony from place to place, and wherever they stop they make themselves a nest constructed entirely out of ants! It’s like a human pyramid, except way better:
That big brown thing is all ants! Here’s a close-up:
As for how long ants live, that depends on both what species of ant you’re talking about, as well as the job that that ant has in its colony. The queen ant is the boss of the nest, and makes all the new ants – she can live for many years in some species of ant. The workers don’t live as long, usually just a couple years or so and sometimes less.
Ants eat all kinds of things! The ants I study, Cephalotes, like to eat bird poop. The leaf cutter ants like to eat fungus. And army ants, well, they eat just about everything that moves. They especially like big fat katydids, which are big green insects that are kind of like a fat slow cricket that doesn’t jump. Here’s a picture of a big one that I found once:
And here she is climbing on my head:
And my head is very big, so imagine how big that katydid must be! That would be a very tasty meal for a lot of army ants.
The closest relatives to ants are wasps, and scientists think the common ancestor, like their great-great-great-great-(insert lots of greats here)-great-grandmother, of all ants and wasps lived around 80 million years ago. She might have looked like this:
This is a very old fossil ant named Sphecomyrma freyi, and long long ago it accidentally got stuck in tree sap. That tree sap turned into amber, and now we can see that these very old ants had lots of things in common with both the wasps and the ants that we see in the world today.
Like wasps and bees, ants will often protect themselves with a stinger. Ants are like wasps, and can sting many times – they don’t leave their stinger behind the way bees do. One ant that is very common around here in Panama is called the bullet ant, or Paraponera clavata. It’s called a bullet ant because its sting hurts like being shot with a bullet! I have never been stung by one, but I have a friend who got stung and they said it felt like they were stubbing their toe over and over again for the entire afternoon. They are really big ants, and I try to watch out for them so they don’t sting me. Here’s a picture of what they look like:
It’s over an inch long! But don’t worry, they don’t live in New Jersey.
Other ants like to bite, and some ants like to bite and then spray acid in the open bite wound. That usually hurts a bit, but the ants usually only do that when they think they’re being attacked.
So I hope you can see that there are lots and lots of different kinds of ants – these are only a few of the species. There are over 14,000 species of ant known to science, and new species are being found all the time! If you would like to see lots of pictures of ants, the scientists at the California Academy of Sciences have a website called Antweb. It has many pictures of all different kinds of ants – you should try and find your favorite!
Thanks again for your questions, and I hope you had fun reading this! If you have more questions about ants and the tropical rainforest, please send them on to me and I will write back!