This is a turtle:turtle

Many people around the world believe that turtles are boring.

This is a turtle ant:

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Photo: Alex Wild

Many people around the world believe that turtle ants are fascinating.

Reportedly, one of the turtle ant characteristics that people love most is how they use their heads to block their nest entrances. But these turtle ants may also provide insights into the evolution of worker castes in ants, as shown recently by Dr. Robert Planqué and colleagues in a new study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.

Ant researchers have long known that ants swap food and enzymes orally through a process called “trophallaxis” (tro-fuh-lax-is). Ants use a special organ, the crop, as a kind of “social stomach” – many workers eat food only to regurgitate it into larvae. But a recent study has found that this ant spit may serve another critical purpose: communication.

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If this ant wants to talk to you, it will spit in your mouth. Photo: Alex Wild

In an exciting new study recently available online in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers found that two species of ants are selective in their use of tools for liquid food transport. Although tool use in ants has already established in previous studies, the mechanisms involved in tool use selection have rarely been investigated. Dr. István Maák and colleagues found that ants exhibit selective behavior in tool use, preferring materials that exhibit optimal handling and/or soaking properties. Perhaps most intriguing, the ants learned to preferentially use artificial tools that have superior properties for liquid food transport when compared to tools in their natural environment.

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Aphaenogaster ants feed on a seed food body. Photo credit: Alex Wild

Several human societies adopt nomadic lifestyles. From Yugurs on the Asian steppe to the Beja in northern Africa, these cultures traditionally gather food by tracking changing resources rather than relying solely on stable but geographically restricted food production. Not to be outdone by humans, some ants also exhibit nomadic behavior, most famously the army ants. But in 2008, Volker Witte and Ulrich Maschwitz reported an extraordinary and previously unknown behavior in ants: mushroom harvesting nomadism.

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A story broke late last week about a new discovery: the tail of a dinosaur locked in amber. This is exciting, of course, as far as it goes. But in a shameful act of narrative misdirection, the mainstream media has avoided discussing the most substantive finding in the golden amber. As editor of The Daily Ant, I believe it is my duty to highlight the true hero of this story: Gerontoformica.

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Gerontoformica fossilized in amber, next to some random tail. Photograph by R.C. McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum