Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Harvester Ant Castes

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Harvester Ant Castes

Article excerpt

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Researchers studying whether nature or nurture determines an ant's status in the colony have found a surprising answer: both. Nature (i.e., the ant's genetic makeup) and nurture (e.g., what it eats) play a role in determining the fate of the Florida harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex badius, a resilient creature found in many parts of the southeastern United States (see photo).

In the hierarchy of an ant colony, status is everything. "Gynes" are destined to become queens, and therefore receive the very best accommodations and generous portions at mealtimes. Workers must be ready to sacrifice health, welfare, and reproductive capacity for the betterment of the colony.

The researchers were drawn to P. badius because its social structure is more complex than most. Its caste system includes two categories of workers: majors and minors. Major workers are nearly four times heavier than minors, but the minors outnumber them by 20 to 1. Gynes are about eight times heavier than minors. The research team included scientists from the University of Illinois, the University of Arizona, Linfield College, and Arizona State University (ASU). The findings appear in American Naturalist.

The researchers wanted to know whether the ant's genetic endowment dictated its caste and size or whether nutrition also played a role. …

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