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In Colonies, Some Lucky Ants Get the Job of Doing Nothing

posted: 09/24/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
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In our fast-paced society, it's difficult to imagine a reality where somebody's job is to do nothing.

According to University of Arizona researchers, however, laziness could be a specialization in and of itself for certain ants that live in a large colony. While observing five ant colonies over a three-week period, entomologists noticed that half of each colony's members were consistently doing nothing. That inactivity, researchers say, was not related to resting or circadian rhythms -- instead, it seems that some ants' job is simply to do that: nothing.

In a newly published paper, University of Arizona entomologist Anna Dornhaus and graduate student Daniel Charbonneau throw out several possible explanations for the purposefully lazy insects' behavior.

The laziest ant stands alone
Antrey/iStock

"The inactive ants could be reserve workers," Charbonneau posits in a news release. "It makes sense to have reserves to meet the peak of those fluctuations -- it's better to have too many workers during the down times than not enough during the peaks."

Lazy ants could also have stomachs full of food that they had previously gathered for other members of the colony. The so-called "living refrigerators" may regurgitate the food to feed their peers, a process known as trophallaxis.

Of course, some ants could just be lazy. Per the response-threshold model, Charbonneau explains, certain creatures may have higher thresholds "at which they will start doing work," leaving the lazy ants to put off working until their services are absolutely necessary.

Whatever the case, Charbonneau and Dornhaus say that they are continuing to explore the implications of the inattentive ants, particularly in the fields of computer science and robotics.

Charbonneau and Dornhaus' research is published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

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