Waters, J., Holbrook, C., Fewell, J., & Harrison, J. (2010). Allometric Scaling of Metabolism, Growth, and Activity in Whole Colonies of the Seed‐Harvester Ant Pogonomyrmex californicus The American Naturalist, 176 (4), 501-510 DOI: 10.1086/656266/>
We all know the feeling: You’re lying naked in a sun-soaked field after taking a fistful of mushrooms and watching waves of energy explode through your friends’ braincases. And no matter how long you watch the trees breathe, just can’t shake the question: “Where does my body end and the world begin?” Turns out this cosmic question has a hallowed tradition, and just about no one knows how to draw boundaries around a body.
The little guys that fucks with our best minds most royally on this distinguished issue are the social Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps). Dudes have been flubberbusting long and hard about whether we should think about the bees in a hive (or people in a city, or dicks in a game of dick jenga) as a wonderful communion of separate beings or as all just the dangly bits of one MegaMan. As the disturbing old saying goes, there’s many ways to skin a cat, but what perverted shitbag wants to to skin a cat a bunch of different ways? So the world was on the verge of turning its back forever on this age old question and exploding in a supernova of its own ignorance.
That is until some brave souls (Dr. James Waters and colleagues) figured out the illest of ways to blow the lid off a part of this problem. But let me slow my roll a bit and fill in the rubbly background that makes it crystalline just way this pape is so sick:
For just about forever, we’ve known one thing about bodies for sure: how fast they use up energy (their metabolic rate) has a crazy strong relationship with how big they are. Specifically, bigger things use less energy per unit body mass than small things. So basically, one giant 100 kg rat should be using up energy much slower than 100 puny 1 kg rats, even though the grand total of rat meat is the same in both cases.
So, what these dudes did was investigate this same problem in ants, the superest of superorganisms. In an ant colony, you should be able to predict how much energy the whole colony is using based on their average body mass (e.g. you should be able to just sum up the metabolic rate of a bunch of small ants). But when they put whole colonies of these little guys in a fancy box that measures how fast they’re using up their cosmic energies, turns out they’re doing exactly not that. Specifically, their metabolic rate is what you’d predict for a single organism that had the collective mass of all the ants. And metabolic rate changes with colony size the same way it does for bigger bodies. So, in summary, ants (a) are fucking crazy, and (b) on both the mystical and physical planes appear to be working just like a single, physically integrated body does. Why? Lord knows. But this paper is opening up ways to answer that question and new ways to think about the most basic aspects of how organisms are put together. Sick.