Ants and their size Part 1- The big ones

Over the last few posts, we have been covering some heavy science. Well done for making it through but I feel like we need a break. To be honest, I need a break from all that science. There are only so many times you can write a big word in a row before it breaks your brain. So today we’re going to look at something a little bit simpler. Today we’re going to look at ants and why they are the sizes that they are. And we’re going to go into a few examples with different species. This is mainly so I can just lose my mind over how cool some of the Ant species are.

An example of cool ants. Army ants, Eciton burchellii.

Ants come in a huge range of sizes. Most people see them as small insects. Well I’m here to tell you that some of them are, but some of them are monstrous. When it comes to the biggest ants in the world there are a few answers. Some of the sizes haven’t been properly recorded in scientific papers, and some argue whether a single ant in a species counts or if it needs to be all of the ants in the species. If you are looking for the single biggest living Ant look no further than the Queen of driver ants in Africa. They are regularly found to be over 5 cm long. There are some claims that they can get up to 8 cm long. Now that’s pretty big. Below is a picture with some of the species I’m talking about. This is one of those things where you think you understand how big it is until you see it. Now on my computer, the picture is life sized. On some of your phones, tablets, or computers it might be a bit different. But there is a ruler there so if you really, really want to you can match the size to real life and you can see how huge the Ant is. Now like I said, it is only the Queens and males that reached this size. The workers in the colony range from one centimetre to the soldiers that range about 2.5 cm. This is a far cry from the 8 cm Queens.  If you are looking for the biggest workers and the biggest average size, another species that is always mentioned is the giant Malaysian Ant. In this species workers get well over 2 cm. The soldiers get over 3 cm. The Queens get a little bit bigger than the soldiers are just over 3 cm as well.

A) A driver ant queen, Dorylus sp. B) Malaysian giant ant worker,Dinomyrmex gigas. C) Black garden ant worker, Lasius niger. D) One of the smallest ants in the world, Carebara atoma (the life sized image is 4 pixels).

For reference if you look at the picture, workers of the black garden Ant, which is one of the most common species across Europe, is half a centimetre long. This just shows how huge these ants can get. Oh, and did I mention that driver Ant colonies can contain over 20 million workers? All descended from one Queen. So, you may think that ants that are about an inch long aren’t that big, but I bet you will change your mind when there are 20 million of them running at you. Now that we’ve covered that the big question is why do they get to these extreme sizes? The answer is relatively simple, thankfully.

To start with, they can. As simple as it sounds, one of the reasons for them getting so big is that they can.

The first thing you might notice about the two large ants I’ve used as my examples, is where they live. The driver ants which I mentioned live in sub-Saharan Africa in rain forests.  The Malaysian giant ant lives in, you guessed it, Alaska. Just kidding they live in the rain forests of Borneo and Malaysia. Rain forests are very warm and have lots of resources in them. Ants are ectotherms. This basically means that they are cold blooded like reptiles and cannot generate their own body heat. They get it from the surrounding environment. In insects this temperature greatly affects their growth rate. In a colony you need workers. This isn’t very efficient if they take ages and ages to grow into adult workers. So, in warmer environments, ants grow quicker.

Now you may be looking but there are some wondering why there are large ants in Europe like Carpenter ants or why there aren’t massive ants roaming the Sahara Desert. This goes into the next limiting factor: their diet. To reach these enormous sizes, they need a lot of food. Rain forests have a lot of food in them in the form of insects and plants and all sorts of foods. This means that they can grow fast enough to make it efficient, and they have enough food to grow this large. It’s as simple as that. Now you may be wondering, if that’s true why are there small ants in the rain forest? This leads us to the factor that has mostly contributed to the large variety of Ant species alive today. The food that they choose to eat.

Driver ants are colossal. In both terms of body size and colony size. This is because their size and numbers allow them to prey on everything they find. Driver ant colonies can eat birds, snakes and even the bodies of elephants. The bigger they are in the more there are, the more food they can eat which leads to more food for their young which means they could have more numbers. This cycle goes on and on and on Until driver Ant colonies reached such a size that their area of rain forest literally runs out of food for them. They can range hundreds of metres even kilometres over their life span and they can drain the rain forest of all the insects in it that they can find. Will go over this in more detail in a future post but this just shows you how effective their size is.

A video I recorded of Driver ants, Dorylus sp., in Uganda. These ants could keep passing at this rate for hours!

The giant forest ant however, lives in large colonies of 10s of thousands. This is much lower than 20 million in the case of driver ants. They are much less aggressive and destructive than driver ants but use their size to defend their territory. Again, I will cover this in more detail in future but the giant forest Ant has ritual fighting. Imagine 2 forest Ant colonies find each other. They want the food that the others have so how do you deal with that? The colonies could fight. But just think about if one Ant that size dies, that’s a lot of wasted food that they put into that worker which is now dead. This is a colossal waste of resources and it’s pointless. These ants are truly incredible. During the night, 1 soldier from each colony will meet in the middle and they will spar with each other. They won’t fight but they will wrestle and hit each other with their antennae to show which ones the strongest. The loser goes back to their colony and the colony leaves the territory. The Victor takes the territory and adds it to their own. In these one on one duels the bigger the Ant the better the fighter. Just as a side note could I please reiterate how cool this is! Ant colony send forward champions! If you don’t think that’s cool, you’re allowed to have the opinion as long as you’re okay with being wrong.

Dinomyrmex gigas majors duelling.

In other species, the reasons for growing to their large sizes varies depending on the species. However these are just a few Examples I find fascinating. I hope you enjoyed reading this and I hope you learn something. This one is a bit of a long one so I apologise for that but I really hope you enjoyed learning about these amazing species. I will cover why answer so small in a future post. Also I guess i have a YouTube channel now? Subscribe for more videos but for now thank you and goodbye,

Alex.

References

Hölldobler, B. and Wilson, E.O., 1990. The ants. Harvard University Press.

Pfeiffer, M. and Linsenmair, K.E., 2001. Territoriality in the Malaysian giant ant Camponotus gigas (Hymenoptera/Formicidae). Journal of Ethology19(2), pp.75-85.

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