Army Ants And Chimps Give Researchers Some Food For Thought

Once upon a time, there was an individual who intentionally ingested a colony of live ants. This person was Volker Sommer, a university professor specializing in evolutionary anthropology at University College London. Sommer and his colleagues, Oliver Allon and Alejandra Pascual-Garrido, journeyed to Nigeria’s Gashaka Gumti National Park to observe chimpanzees and their interactions with army ants and sticks. While investigating the behavior of these animals, the scientists observed that the chimpanzees used sticks to retrieve the army ants from their nests, minimizing the risk of painful ant bites.

The team was interested in investigating this give-and-take relationship between the chimpanzees and army ants further, so they mimicked the predatory behavior of the chimpanzees by using discarded chimp-manufactured "dipping wands" to study how the ants would respond. They measured the speed of the ants as they ascended the dipping wand, the quantity of ants present in a single dip, and the typical weight of these ants.

The most challenging aspect of the research involved estimating the numerical relationship between the number of ingested ants and the discernible ant parts that appear in the animals’ feces. Sommer suggested that it would be possible to conduct controlled experiments where captive chimpanzees are fed known numbers of army ants, followed by fecal inspections to clarify this issue. In the meantime, Sommer volunteered to serve as a substitute for a chimpanzee.

Through self-experimentation, Sommer was able to correlate the number of ingested ants with the remains that were detected in his subsequent excrement. The results suggest that 10.1% of ingested insects are detectable in excreta produced during the subsequent three days. The research was conducted without the support of government grants, relying solely on the team’s curiosity and initiative.


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    David Wong is a 29-year-old educator and blogger who focuses on helping students learn in creative and interesting ways. He has a background in teaching and has been blogging since 2006. David's work has been featured on a variety of websites, including Lifehack, Dumb Little Man, and The Huffington Post.