Biologists Discover That Some Ants Eventually Retire

Photo: diveofficer / CC

Many adjectives come to mind when thinking about ants, but 'idle' likely isn't among them. But recently biologists discovered that after a lifetime of service in their namesake occupation, older leaf-cutter ants eventually decided to hang their hats, enjoying a retirement of sorts in their golden years. While the study may not appear to have overt real-word implications, researchers insist it may help us better understand our own notions of productivity, especially later in life. "This study demonstrates an advantage of social living that we are familiar with," says the study's lead author. "Humans that can no longer do certain tasks can still make very worthwhile contributions to society." According to a new study, researchers found most older Central American leaf-cutting ants take on a new, less intensive role at a certain point in life -- though their later contribution to the whole is not without its own importance. It seems that cutting leafs is work better suited to the young -- the ants are born with sharp mandibles perfect for slicing through plants, but eventually, they begin to lose their edge, literally.

The BBC explains:

"Cutting leaves is hard work," explains the University of Oregon's Dr Robert Schofield, who led the study. "Much of the cutting is done with a V-shaped blade between teeth on their mandibles. This blade starts out as sharp as the sharpest razor blade that humans have developed."

It is believed that leaf-cutter ants' mandibles also contain zinc-enriched biomaterials, which strengthen them.

Over time, however, these razor-sharp blades become blunt and less efficient.

Evidently in ant society, much like our own, productivity is highly valued. But researchers discovered that when these elderly cutting ants retired from their common trade, it didn't necessarily mark an end to their helpfulness. Instead, the older ants in the colony were found to exclusively carry the leaves cut by their young counterparts.

Researchers believe that this ability to shift jobs and remain a productive member of ant society has led to a longer lifespan among them compared to those insects that live alone. For Schodfield, however, the results of this study extend beyond to world of entomology. If ants can recognize the clear importance of their elders in society, he suggests, perhaps we humans should appreciate our oldest and wisest citizens a bit more as well -- for the golden years may be more aptly named than we often stop to realize.

More on Life as an Ants
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Tags: Animals | Evolution | Insects

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