If you were recently in New York City and you saw a man drinking stuff off of the pavement with a weird apparatus that look like a water bong, you may have unintentionally witnessed serious biological fieldwork in action.
Clint Penick, a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University, went to Broadway to study about the intake of city ants, with an aspirator in hand to collect samples.
What Penick was trying to find out if urban ants, like their human counterparts, are on a junk-food-heavy-diet. According to his results that was published yesterday (March 31) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, it turns out to be positive that some of them are.
The assumption might seem clear to anyone who’s ever witnessed an army of ants attack a spilled can of soda or an unlucky ice cream cone on the sidewalk. But like New Yorkers, the study discovered that ants can have quite distinct eating habits.
Like humans, ants have a diet heavy in lawns such as corn and sugarcane that leaves a chemical signature in the body in the form of carbon-13, a carbon element. So Penick and his co-workers examined the levels of carbon-13 that can be found is 21 ant species gathered from dozens of sites on New York City’s sidewalks, traffic island, and parks.
They found that the kinds that lived in areas with more human presence generally had greater levels of carbon-13 that the kinds that are stuck in the parks.
The Tetramorium Sp. E. also known as the sidewalk ant had the topmost level of carbon-13 among species.
An associate professor of biology at California State University, Terry McGlynn , who wasn’t included in the study, said the research is “helpful in building a world view if we’re thinking more widely about energy flow, urban planning and urban ecosystems.”
McGlynn said he believes it’s important that Tetramorium workers should not only be found on pavements and traffic medians, but also in parks and places whose populations had somewhat low levels of carbon-13, meaning they consume more natural foods.
“We still don’t know why Tetramorium is such an urban-adapted species compared to all other species,” he added. “This study will help us get there.”