“When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all.” -E.O. Wilson
Sure, there are entire worlds within our world that we never even give a second thought to. There’s an entire subterranean Universe to explore, and you might get the feeling to do it if you listen to Mecca Bodega’s rumbling sound, in
But as soon as those tiny critters begin invading your house, the wonder goes right out the window. In fact, you probably haven’t thought much about them in terms other than how-to-poison-them in a long time.
But as a kid, I was often fascinated with the world of the tiny, insignificant ant. Scientifically, of course, there’s the entire field of myrmecology, or the study of ants. But what you may not know is that the ant-hole goes far deeper than you may have realized. Thanks to one researcher, you’re about to see exactly how.
Florida State professor Walter Tschinkel has been studying the structure of ant colonies for a long time, and has taken castings of the entire underground structures of them! While I’d always thought that colonies had multiple, interconnected pathways, I never knew how varied and deep some of them went.
As you might expect, similar species build similar-structured colonies, while varieties exist between species as far as the number of deep crevasses and spacing between the large areas.
These colonies can achieve depths of more than 12 feet, can house anywhere from hundreds to more than 10,000 ants, and usually have the youngest ants in the lowest levels; the ones that live closest to the surface are full-grown adult ants, already towards the end of their life cycles.
But what makes this most spectacular, to me, is that instead of using plaster casts, which broke apart easily and allowed one to count the ants inside, Walter Tschinkel now uses molten metals — either zinc or aluminum — to cast the entire colony at once, incinerating the ants and creating one, single metal structure that can be dug up completely intact!
We do so by tracing the pigmentation of the ants—the ants are pale when first becoming the adult, so we can look at color of ants throughout different parts of the nest and find that there are more pale ants near the bottom. Or we look at mandible wear—the older the ant, the more wear there is on their mandible. With this method we judge their relative age based on relative wear.
And that’s how you learn that the youngest ants are in the bottom chambers, and that the oldest ones are out foraging for food! For those of you who’d like to see a video of how this works, here’s a short news segment on Dr. Tschinkel taking these amazing casts!