Stilt-walking ants

Over the summer I managed to catch up on reading lots of London and New York Reviews. Because reading is one of the all-too-few activities I do away from a computer, I haven’t found a good way to remember to blog anything interesting I come across. But here’s a couple of fun and amazing things about ants that have stuck in my head…

Ants clearly are fundamentally different from us. A whimsical example concerns the work of ant morticians, which recognize ant corpses purely on the basis of the presence of a product of decomposition called oleic acid. When researchers daub live ants with the acid, they are promptly carried off to the ant cemetery by the undertakers, despite the fact that they are alive and kicking. Indeed, unless they clean themselves very thoroughly they are repeatedly dragged to the mortuary, despite showing every other sign of life.

The means that ants use to find their way in the world are fascinating. It has recently been found that ant explorers count their steps to determine where they are in relation to home. This remarkable ability was discovered by researchers who lengthened the legs of ants by attaching stilts to them. The stilt-walking ants, they observed, became lost on their way home to the nest at a distance proportionate to the length of their stilts.

Ants on stilts! This paragraph asks more questions than it answers. There’s more around the web, and the National Geographic even has a photo.

That excerpt is from a fascinating review by Tim Flannery of The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson at the New York Review of Books.


  • This is fascinating. Seriously amazing. So, the subject leads me to question whether ants would be the ultimate pet for the children. Low key, low maintenance, high learning potential... but possibly abusive to imprison an intelligent species?

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15 Sep 2009 at Twitter

  • 1:08pm: It's only September and I'm already wearing my woolly hat indoors.