Graduate student Benjamin Blanchard’s enthusiasm about ants fuels his scientific research.
In December journalist and Jezebel editor in chief Emma Carmichael scanned her in‑box and discovered the message she would later dub her “favorite email of 2016.”
The missive from UChicago graduate student Benjamin Blanchard explained that he was “trying to gather statements on ants from influential thinkers of our time. So, could you please provide an answer to this question: ‘What is your favorite thing about ants?’”
Carmichael posted a screenshot of the message on Twitter. “If i don’t get back to your email for a few days,” she wrote, “it’s [because] i’m still figuring out how to respond to this one.” Her tweet went (modestly) viral—as of this writing, it had been retweeted by nearly a thousand people, and liked more than 4,300 times.
Golden-tailed spiny ant. (Photography by John Tann, CC BY 2.0)
Months later Blanchard, a student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, remains both bemused by and slightly incredulous at the online response Carmichael’s tweet provoked. (He’s also careful not to overstate the scale of the attention. “I don’t know if I would go as far to say it was fully viral,” he says.) Mostly he’s happy the email allowed him to talk about his love of ants with a wider audience. On Twitter he bantered with Carmichael and others about his insect research—and his hope that other public figures he’d written to would respond.
In person Blanchard is as earnest and knowledgeable about ants as his email would suggest. He provides a rapid-fire overview of some of the most interesting ant species: the trap-jaw ant has “these crazy, really, really superpowered jaws—that’s actually the fastest self-directed motion of any known animal.” His adviser, lecturer Corrie Moreau, studies the turtle ant, which has an odd circular head that can be used to block the entrance to its nest. In human terms, “it’d be like if our heads were rectangular and we sat all day with our heads in the door,” Blanchard says.
Spiny ant. (Photography by Bernard Dupont, CC BY 2.0)
Blanchard has a particular soft spot for the “truly amazing” genus he studies, the Polyrhachis (“many-spined”) ants. The 700 species in the group have different kinds and numbers of defensive spines, which, up close, look a little like rose thorns protruding from the thorax. Blanchard wants to understand why such a diverse range of spines evolved and how these spines influence the species’ relationships to their habitats and to other ants. He’s also working to establish an updated phylogeny—an evolutionary tree of life—for the spiny ant group.
In the first chapter of his dissertation, which was recently published in the journal Evolution, Blanchard looked at the development of ant defense mechanisms. He hypothesized that certain defensive traits would exhibit what’s called an evolutionary trade-off—as Blanchard defines it, “a negative correlation across species between different traits that serve similar functions.” And indeed, using statistical analysis, he found that ant species appear to make a choice, so to speak, between developing a chemical sting and other defensive traits, such as spines, large eyes, and large colony size.
Golden-tailed spiny ant. (Photography by Gail Hampshire, CC BY 2.0
The paper also showed that the evolutionary decision to forgo a sting allows for the development of many other types of defensive traits, leading to an explosion of new ant species. In evolutionary biology, the question of how much evolutionary trade-offs contribute to species diversity is an open one, and Blanchard hopes his work will inform the conversation. (Many other factors might also contribute, such as decreases in predation and the development of very specialized ecological niches.)
This summer Blanchard will return to his field site in southern China, which is home to a large number of spiny ant species. He’ll be looking at how different lengths of spines and numbers of spines affect ants’ ability to survive, both against predators and in competition with other ant species. There’s already some evidence that longer hooklike spines get caught uncomfortably in the mouths of large predators such as frogs; shorter spines may be more effective against smaller predators, like spiders, or allow for greater agility. It’s also possible there’s an evolutionary trajectory toward longer spines because smaller ones aren’t very useful for defense at all.
In addition to exposing ants to predators, Blanchard’s research involves putting different spiny ant species together with a shared food resource and seeing which colony withstands the ecological pressure. “Hopefully it’s a somewhat realistic test of what they do in nature,” he explains.
Blanchard traces his interest in ants to an insect book his parents bought for him when he was a child. He was struck, then as now, by the similarities between ants and humans. The way ants tend minute sap-sucking insects called aphids is, he says, “indistinguishable” from how humans herd cows. And like ours, their social behavior runs the gamut from heroic self-sacrifice to warfare. “It’s not just a layperson thing” to see ourselves in ants.
Those similarities, Blanchard thinks, may explain why humans have been studying and writing about ants so consistently and for so long. Alongside his scientific research, he’s been compiling a database of ant quotes and references that he hopes someday to turn into a book; the oldest entry is from 2500 BC.
And he’s continued to gather more material from the email solicitation he sent to Carmichael and around 50 others. (Carmichael did write back, noting that “ants work their butts off at all times for the greater good of their species.”) Psychologist Steven Pinker said his favorite thing about ants was their altruism. Writer Natasha Vargas-Cooper replied at length explaining that ants are in a constant state of revolution. Politician Dennis Kucinich sent a three-word response: “They are organized.”