Lately, I’ve been a little obsessed with the Marvel film Ant-Man. I’m a sucker for a good superhero film, and this was definitely that. To top it all off, the film heavily featured a curious creature that is often overlooked: the humble, yet incredible, ant. Yes, I know the film is a work of fiction (sadly, because having a shrinking suit would be so cool!) but there were a lot of elements that are based on fact, specifically when it comes to the awesome natural ability of ants.
In the film, Scott Lang (the Ant-Man) had a few different types of ants at his disposal: carpenter ants, bullet ants, fire ants, and crazy ants. Lets take a look at each of these types in a bit more detail…
These ants build their nests inside wood, hence their ‘carpenter’ name. They are a rather large ant species with individuals ranging from 0.76cm to 2.54cm. Both the reproductive males and females have wings (quite a few ant species do actually) which are necessary for something called ‘nuptial flight’; essentially, mating whilst in the air. Due to their large size and their flying capabilities, these ants are used for ground and air transport within the film. Scott even has his own personal steed whom he christens ‘Ant-thony’, even though I have a sneaky suspicion that ‘he’ is actually a ‘she’ due to ‘his’ large size, but ‘he’s’ pretty adorable nonetheless (considering that he’s a CGI ant that is).
These ants are known for their powerful venomous sting which is said to be greater than that of a bee or wasp. So much so that their name derives from the fact that the pain from being stung is comparable with being shot! In the film, Scott uses them to attack the bad guys, and considering that their sting causes a burning, throbbing feeling for up to 24 hours, I don’t envy those guys one little bit. In the real world, bullet ants are being investigated for potential medical applications. Their venom contains a paralysing neurotoxic peptide which can affect the central nervous system by blocking the transmission of neurotransmitters across synapses. At the moment, there aren’t any real studies that show the extent of this finding in relation to tangible applications, but scientists are starting to understand this peptide a lot better so the future looks promising.
These guys also have a pretty painful sting (although, not as bad as the bullet ants) which feels similar to being burned by fire, hence the name ‘fire ant’. But their most impressive feature is their affinity for architecture. By using their jaws to clamp on to a fellow fire ant’s leg, they are able to create structures which are both complex and extremely strong. In the film, the fire ants help Scott to get in and out of difficult places by building bridges or rafts with their bodies. In the wild, this incredible ability definitely comes in handy. Fire ants are native to areas of Brazil that are prone to flooding. So, when their nests flood, the fire ants are able to use their bodies to build rafts to allow them to float on the water, they can then build bridges to help them get to dry land, and they can also build temporary shelters which buys them some time until their new underground nest is constructed.
These ants are fast and erratic, hence their ‘crazy’ moniker. In the film, these ants are said to be able to conduct electricity, which comes in handy when the enemy’s electronics need to be short circuited. However, whilst conducting my research for this post, I found out that their electricity abilities might have been hyped up for the sake of Hollywood entertainment. As it turns out, crazy ants seem to have a penchant for electricity but they tend to get fried by the stuff. There doesn’t seem to be any real scientific evidence to say why they’re attracted to electrical devices though. One hypothesis suggests that the ants are drawn to warm places (since they originally stem from the tropics) and electrical circuits are definitely that. Even though they don’t seem to have any conducting ability, crazy ants are still pretty cool. They seem to be able to mate with their siblings without showing any signs of inbreeding. They can do this because the male and female gene pools remain separate, since daughter queens are genetic clones of the queen, and the breeding males are the genetic clones of her mate (the worker ants, however, are produced by the queen through normal sexual means, but they don’t breed so they don’t matter to the gene pool). This sibling mating process is known as ‘double cloning’ and it allows the crazy ants to be the most widespread ant species in the world.
Ants are seriously amazing, and after watching the film and doing some research on these curious creatures, I don’t think I’ll ever look at one in the same way again.