All ants look pretty much alike and they’re pretty hard to see so the older ones with graying heads and sunken thoraxes don’t really stand out from the rest of the hill, but ant experts with trained eyes and powerful magnifying glasses say ants show their age as they grow older. Except for one mysterious species that apparently never ages … until they’re dead.
These insects with tiny pictures of six-legged Dorian Grays hanging in their anthills are Pheidole dentata ants, which are found in North America from the Middle Atlantic states southwest to Mexico. Their anti-aging trait was discovered by Ysabel Giraldo, a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology who, like many other great discoverers, found it while looking for something else.
According to her paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (it’s based on her PhD thesis in biology from Boston University), Giraldo was studying the social behavior of the Pheidole dentata ants – especially how their interactions with other ants change over their lifespans, which average about 140 days. She paid special attention to the tasks of worker ants – how they learned them, how they became skilled and how they adapted as they got older and their skills diminished.
After watching the ants for two years, what she found was completely unexpected. Instead of going downhill as they aged, the ants maintained a steady level of performance throughout their lives, sometimes even improving in strength and ability. Their bodies and especially their brains showed no age deterioration whatsoever until that fateful day when they went legs up and died.
What’s the secret fountain of youth these insects obviously drink from and can we tap into it – as long as it doesn’t involve eating ants?
We had a lot of conversations about what is going on. And the short answer is that there’s a lot more research to do. It’s not one simple answer.
Giraldo and her team could not determine what finally causes these ageless ants to die (other than predators, pesticides or a big shoe) nor if there’s something they do (Exercise? Drinking apple-cider vinegar?) that keeps them young.
Ysabel Giraldo is back on her hands and knees holding her magnifying glass (out of the direct sun, of course) and watching Pheidole dentata ants, trying to find the fountain of youth. Do her a favor and don’t step on any for a while.