The Ant GPS, I never found!

in Sci-Pourri by

I grew up in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) campus, Bangalore, India and studied at the school KVIISc, located within the campus. I planned to stay there for the rest of my life, but life hasn’t quite worked out that way yet. Here I am baby in hand sitting in California reminiscing long summer afternoons spent chasing ants in the Jubilee Gardens. One of the great privileges of living on campus and studying at KVIISc was unrestricted access to IISc’s eminent faculty, who were eager to share their science interests with any willing student. I approached Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar, a world-renowned expert on the evolution of social insects, for a high-school summer project. He was most enthusiastic and suggested that I test if the ant species Diacamma ceylonense know their way back home when they go out for foraging?

Diacamma ceylonense are queenless ants, where workers often forage solitarily. They build nests underground and decorate the entrance elaborately with dry twigs, feathers, leaves as well as skin and remains of dead insects. They can be found in the Jubilee Gardens inside the IISc campus. For those who have lived in the IISc campus, you’d know that the Jubilee Gardens is a beautiful albeit largely neglected, somewhat spooky and overgrown wooded area, which is an excellent hub for biodiversity, a tiny remnant of a long-gone Bangalore.

Diacamma extends from India east to Japan, and from southern China to northeast Australia (Emery, 1911; Wheeler & Chapman, 1922; Suwabe et al., 2007). Laciny et al. (2015). Image source: Wikipedia


Prof. Gadagkar’s student led me to the Jubilee Gardens, ruler, metal number tags, timer and compass in hand, my first field trip! We came to a Diacamma nest; a few ants were coming out of the entrance to forage. They were large enough to track. I was to follow the path of one ant at a time for its entire solitary journey, out of and back to its nest. To trace the path, I would place a metal tag every foot of the ant’s journey. Using the compass, I would measure the direction the ant took, every foot and then record the time taken for the outward and inward journey. If an ant knew her way back to her nest, then we hypothesized, her inward path would probably be quicker and less circuitous compared to her outward path.

The place where it all started. Image source: Wikipedia Commons

So for two months, I diligently set out for Jubilee Gardens every afternoon and spent hours following Diacamma, sometimes my brother kept me company, but I was mostly alone. The ants liked to tease me; they’d hide under a leaf and refuse to budge or go on such a long expedition that it would get dark and time for me to go home. Some ants found food in 5 mins; others took as long as 70 mins, some brought food, others came back with nothing at all. One clever ant once found food and followed my metal tags to get back to her nest. Another time, the ants picked up a string I had left behind to add to their nest decoration, which made me mighty happy. One fateful afternoon, I arrived in Jubilee Gardens and sat on a bench to drink water, when this huge King Cobra sprang out from underneath my bench and looked at me viciously for disturbing his nap. He motioned towards me, but thought otherwise and slid away. I collected myself and went directly to Prof. Gadagkar.

He asked me to recount all my field trips and what I learned from them, he assured me I had done an excellent job, but said it wasn’t very safe for me to go by myself to the Jubilee Gardens. Of the almost 40 ants that I had followed in the two months, I had only 10 complete journeys. With such a small sample size, I could hardly come to any definite conclusion, although the overall trend suggested that the ants very well knew their way back home. Besides a slight fear of snakes, I understood that science is rigorous, but fun as well. This was the beginning of an exciting science journey for me, full of thorny, bumpy and unknown paths, but with some occasional beautiful and surprising vistas.

About the author

Roopsha Sengupta is a freelance manuscript editor and is trying to break into a suitable scientific editing and writing role. She did her PhD in the Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna and postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge UK, specializing in the field of Epigenetics. Besides science and words, she enjoys spending time with children, doodling and singing.

About the editors:

Sushama Sivakumar is a post-doctoral fellow at UT Southwestern Medical center, TX, USA. She is interested in studying the regulatory mechanisms that control proper chromosome segregation during mammalian cell mitosis.

Rituparna Chakrabarti is the editor in chief of Club SciWri. She pursued her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Georg-August University (Göttingen, Germany) and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Biostructural Imaging of Neurodegeneration (BIN), Göttingen. For her, the interface of art and science is the place to be! To unwind herself she plays mandolin and eagerly looks for a corner at a coffee house to slide herself in with a good read or company.

Cover Image: created by Roopsha Sengupta using background image by Rodion Kutsaev, other images are credited in the blog.

Blog layout: Sushama Sivakumar

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License


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