Scientists Took 11,000 Photos of Ants’ Faces to Reveal Secrets of Survival

scientists studied thousands of ant faces photos

Scientists took over 11,000 photos of ants to reveal how the different patterns and textures on their faces could be the secret behind their survival as a species.

Entomologist Clint Penick and his students at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, U.S. spent the COVID-19 pandemic taking and studying thousands of photos of ants’ faces.

The photos of more than 11,000 kinds of ants revealed how the intricate textures and patterns found on these tiny creatures’ faces may have offered practical benefits to their survival.

Since ants first emerged some 160 million to 140 million years ago near the beginning of the Cretaceous Period, various face textures have appeared, disappeared, and sometimes reappeared.

According to a report by Science News, ant faces are so detailed and varied, that scientists have developed more than 150 terms to describe the various facial details and subtle distinctions between their species.

Most ants have a smooth outer surface, otherwise known as a “cuticle.” However, Pennick tells Science News that some ants grow elaborate patterns, such as tiny indentations “like dimples on a golf ball” or netted patterns like “cracks in mud.”

The multiple origins got Penick and his researchers questioning if the patterns and the subtle distinctions could provide advantages to the insects — rather than just being coincidental.

The photographs helped Penick to come up with more broad categories for the facial patterns — smooth, reticulate, striate, punctate, and tuberous — which helped classify 11,739 images of ants.

In a paper published in Mymecological News, Penick explained how the classification system derived from the photographs provided more insight into as why different patterns evolved on ants’ faces and what role they could play in ant behaviors.

For instance, Pennick tells Science News that some soil-dwelling ants with raised, swirling “almost psychedelic” facial ridges could be getting extra protection from abrasion. The ridges lie so close together that sand grains can’t fit in between, offering a shield from the harsh environment.

The research project also revealed that ants’ facial textures have evolved multiple times, potentially serving practical purposes beyond aesthetic value. For example, the powerful jawed Odontomachus ants’ facial textures might help absorb stress.

However, Penick says that these hypotheses require further experimental testing.

Image credits: All photos via AntWeb.