Our 2016 Theme Bug is the ANT!
This year the Museum celebrates the 20th anniversary of BugFest, the largest single-day bug-centric event in the country! This year's theme focuses on the wonderful world of ants. With that in mind, Museum ant experts Adrian Smith and Magdalena Sorger, along with North Carolina State University colleague Clint Penick, came up with a list of their favorite ants.
Zombie Ants (various species)
When airborne spores of the fungus Ophiocordyceps attach to an ant they soon travel to its brain and change the ant's behavior. For instance, at the end of the day the ant will climb a tree instead of walking back to the nest. Once on the tree, the fungus tells the ant to find a spot it can bite onto, like some tree bark, a small twig or the mid-vein of a leaf. And then it won't be able to let go anymore — because the fungus says so. The ant ultimately dies of starvation and the fungus starts growing a fruiting body out of the ant's neck and eventually releases spores into the air that will find their way to the next host ant.
Exploding Ants (Colobopsis cylindricus complex, multiple species)
Exploding ants (aka Kamikaze ants) have an unusual defense mechanism. When an intruder approaches the nest, individual workers self-sacrifice by exploding. Colobopsis ants produce a toxic yellow goo inside their bellies that — upon explosion — covers and eventually kills the intruder. The ants first exhibit an alarm response by raising their abdomens. If the invader doesn't back away, the ants will attack by clenching on to an appendage and exploding. Why the ants go to such extremes to defend their colony is unknown. During my travels in Borneo I often encountered insects that were injured, some with bodies that were half eaten away. Upon looking closely, I could see the remnants of yellow goo on them.
Pavement Ant (Tetramorium Sp. E)
Pavement ants are the most common ants in cities throughout the world. In fact, they are almost exclusively found in cities, and the exact location of their native habitat is unknown. Each spring, pavement ants erupt from under the sidewalk and battle with neighboring colonies to re-establish their territory. Once these disputes are settled, colonies focus on acquiring as much food as possible. How are pavement ants able to get enough food when they live in a sea of concrete? Well, they get help from us. Pavement ants feed on our litter, and a study in New York found that pavement ants eat the equivalent of 60,000 hotdogs every year just along Broadway!
Odorous House Ant (Tapinoma sessile)
If pavement ants dominate our streets, then odorous house ants dominate our homes. They stalk our kitchen counters and living room floors scavenging for crumbs to bring back to their nests. Odorous house ants get their name from the strong odor they emit when crushed. For years, their odor had been described as "rotten coconut" or "rancid butter," but research at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences revealed the true odor — blue cheese! The same compounds that odorous house ants use to signal alarm are also produced by the microbes that give blue cheese its distinct taste. The next time you find these ants in your kitchen, just think of their culinary potential.
Trap-jaw Ants (Odontomachus spp.)
These ants have giant jaws that open 180° to form a bear trap of sorts. When something touches sensitive trigger hairs at the edges of their mouth, the jaws snap shut at a speed that is faster than any other motion recorded in the animal kingdom — up to 143 mph. They use this high-speed trap to catch food, for instance, termites. Although termites possess heavy chemical defenses, they are futile against a powerful trap-jaw. In addition, they possess a powerful stinger that injects a painful venom into their victims. And as if all of this isn't enough, these ants also jump! They snap their hyper-fast jaws against the ground to propel themselves backwards and away from danger or towards an intruder.
Indian Jumping Ant (Harpegnathos saltator)
The Indian jumping ant gets its name from its rare ability to jump. Jumping ants stalk small insects on the forest floor, and when they get close to their prey, they jump using their legs and strike with their long mandibles. Unlike most ants, jumping ants don't always have a queen. Worker ants can mate and lay eggs, and they compete in a months-long tournament to establish a dominance hierarchy. Workers fight using their antennae in back-and-forth duels, and the winning ants change the way they smell to signal to others that they are dominant. At the end of a tournament, the winning ants become the primary egg-layers of the colony and spend the rest of their lives inside the nest.
Florida Harvester Ant (Pogonomyrmex badius)
Florida harvester ants get their name from their habit of harvesting and storing seeds in their expansive underground nests. Every year a colony of these ants constructs a new nest, which is made by up to 5,000 ants moving 44 pounds of soil from depths up to 10 feet underground! Although they are called "Florida" harvester ants, they occur as far west as Louisiana and north into the Sandhills region of North Carolina. Their nests are easily spotted because they spread a large ring of charcoal around their entrances. They are the only species to have two classes of workers: minor workers and big-headed majors. Their venom, which they deliver by sting, is among the most potent insect venoms ever documented.
Long-legged Harvester Ant (Novomessor cockerelli)
These harvester ants are native to the Southwestern US, where they are primarily active at dusk and dawn. One of their main predators are tiny subterranean army ants who invade their colonies, stealing and feeding on their young. These harvester ants have come up with a strategy for dealing with invaders: whenever they sense army ants around or in their nest, an alarm signal is sent through the colony and all 5,000 ants will grab their brood and even the queen and run out of the colony, spreading out over the desert floor, hiding up and under small shrubs. An entire nest can be evacuated in a matter of minutes. When they're not running for their lives, these ants are studied by researchers who are interested in cooperative transport, as these ants are experts at collectively lifting and carrying large food objects back to their nests.