Small Means Ecological Success

By Beacon Staff

As a wildlife biologist, Doug Chadwick spies into the lives of grizzly bears, wolverines, and whales. In one of his forays to Australia, the Whitefish author explored the other end of the animal world—creatures less than a half-inch big. “Weaver ants have ten thousand times more impact on forests than tigers or lions,” laughs Chadwick. “It’s fun looking at the little things that run ecosystems.”

This Friday, in a presentation co-hosted by The Glacier National Park Fund and the Montana House in Apgar Village, Chadwick will speak on Superorganisms in Einsteinian Space. “The ant’s brain is the size of a pinprick, but with a half-million of them, it’s like super-computing and collective intelligence,” he explains. “They weigh so little individually that gravity rarely affects them. But as one big organism that spreads itself out over 17 trees, it’s another way to be safe and powerful.”

Chadwick’s research for a National Geographic story on the ants gave him a first-hand look at their colonies in two national parks down under: Daintree Rainforest in Queensland and Kakadu in Northern Territories.

Weaver ants, named for their ability to weave silk from larvae to make big ball-like leaf nests in the rain forest canopy, live in large colonies. Worker ants specialize in nest construction, defense, foraging, herding, and hunting. Their complex communication permits them to collectively stitch large leaves together, form chains of ants to reach across spatial distances to adjacent trees, and recruit troops for fighting if threatened. “They’ve found ways to skip past limitations,” says Chadwick of the ants that are often studied for robotics. “They rely on communication and cooperation. Nature is at her more diverse and creative at the level of the ant.”

Chadwick will be speaking on the ants and showing photos of their teamwork on Friday, Sept. 5, 2008 at 7:30 p.m. at Montana House in Apgar. For further information call the Montana House at 406-888-5393 or the Glacier National Park Fund at 406-862-6110.

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