A recent study by Oksana Skaldina and Jouni Sorvari looked at head coloration in ants as a possible metric for the level of disturbance in European boreal coniferous forests. The researchers, both from the University of Eastern Finland, compared the level of melanization in the heads of queens in the wood ant species Formica aquilonia in native versus disturbed forest habitats. Notably, F. aquilonia is listed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN.
In order to quantitatively compare melanization, Skaldina and Sorvari used Adobe Photoshop and ImageJ. Using these programs, they converted head shots to greyscale, and then into negative photos, which better emphasized differences between the samples (and also made the ant heads look pretty cool!).
In the end, the researchers found that the morph with the highest degree of melanization, Morph V, was only found in the disturbed habitats. Although less melanized morphs were also found in disturbed habitats, the results of this study suggest that the fairly easily identifiable trait of color may be useful in assessing the level of disturbance in various habitats.
Color, as a whole, is not often considered with ants, due to a decent amount of color variability within even single ant colonies in many species. But, as this study suggests, color may still provide some useful information that may help us track environmental disturbance, as well as address other interesting ecological and evolutionary questions.