Monday, October 30, 2006

Ants on stilts

Great name for a children's book, eh? Maybe a sequel to Whales on Stilts?

On Saturday night while on the bus on my way to a Halloween party, I was listening to old NPR podcasts from July, and heard the craziest thing (I'm once again coming into amazing news late, so forgive me if you've heard this before).

German scientists were studying the navigational abilities of Desert Ants, and had the theory that ants somehow counted their strides to navigate. To prove this theory, they cut the ants' legs so that their stride was shorter. They found that the ants came up short of their home. So then they tested the ants by making stilts for their legs to make their strides longer. To do this, they glued hog hairs onto each leg of the ant. Sure enough, the ants with stilts were overshooting their home. Therefore, they determined that these ants somehow counted the steps they were taking to find their ways home--they have some sort of internal counting-mechanism! Isn't that crazy?

The original study was printed in Science Magazine, but the language there is so full of science mumbo-jumbo; the articles on Seed Magazine and The Economist are much easier. This is the final paragraph from the latter:
The story, however, has a happy ending. Having proved his point, Dr Wittlinger returned both stumped and stilted ants to the nest and gave them a few days to recover. Then he let them out for another run. Now that they could re-count their outbound journeys, they were able to calculate the journey home correctly. Ants may not be very bright, but it seems they have a head for figures.
And check out this picture--an ant on stilts!

Kinda scary looking, actually.


topangamaria said...

That is so amazing and freaky.
Whales on Stilts made me laugh.
Ants on Stilts gives me the heebie jeebies.

Rita said...

Holy cow, that is amazing!

I love stories like this!!

Anonymous said...

butchers. just kidding. I wonder if the scientists left the stilts on. If so, did the stilts give them an advantage? Maybe they found the food faster. But this is probably mitigated in such a group-centric society. I kind of want to pay the $10 to read the rest of the paper on science.