The Anthill: A Society in Miniature

Evolutionary biologists studying the establishment and development of social behaviour are looking for answers in the ant population.


In an anthill, you favour your relatives, design the population structure, discipline self-seekers and make an effort for the common good.

Naturally, ant behaviour is different from the behaviour models of human societies.

“People send their young men to war; ants send their old women,” says Professor Lotta Sundström, leader of an evolutionary biology research team at the Department of Biological and Environmental Studies.

Young, valuable workers are assigned with indoor tasks, since outdoor work always involves risks. When outside, you might end up eaten or lost. However, an ant which has left the hill at its own initiative seldom loses its way.

“Ants manage their own work areas, know the paths and recognise their hill and close relatives on the basis of smell. Many species also navigate with the help of the sun or the shapes of the environment. But, if you transfer an ant away, or if it gets lost in an unfamiliar area, it can no longer find its way home.

The research team, part of the Department of Biological and Environmental Studies of the University of Helsinki, has studied the same common black ant and narrow-headed ant populations for 15 years already.

Ant populations provide excellent study material for finding out the special ecological and genetic characteristics of evolutionary contradictions. For example, the aim can be to understand how natural selection can possibly have favoured behaviour that reserves breeding to be the exclusive right of a precious few.

Text: Sanna Agullana
Photo: Lotta Sundström

Translation: AACNoodi Oy

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