Researchers at North Carolina State University have found that a particular species of ant undergoes extreme physical changes during tournament-style battles to become the leader of a colony. The scientists discovered that hormonal changes in the brain trigger a physical transformation in the Indian jumping ant's body, turning it into a dominant fighting machine. Ben Gruber reports.
The queen has been removed from this ant colony - and her absence has triggered a month long tournament-style battle for supremacy. Clint Penick, a researcher at North Carolina State University, says that without their queen, these subordinate worker ants undergo a physical transformation and start competing to become the next leader. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CLINT PENICK, RESEACRHER, NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "So once the tournaments begin what we see is that there is internal changes happening inside the body and within a matter of days what we see is changes in dopamine in the brain that we think are linked to the reproduction that starts in these workers. And so over time you see huge effects and none of them are based on DNA changes, they are changes in gene expression that are causing these differences." If the ants, seen here color coated for indentification purposes, compete well early on, their dopamine levels rise, triggering their genes to send out a new set of instructions to their bodies, transforming the insects into more physically dominant figures. And the changes are significant according to Penick. Over just a few days, the brain of an ant that appears to be winning the tournament will decrease in size by as much as 25 percent, shifting all of its energy into producing ovaries for reproduction. Its life span will increase 3 fold and it will begin standing taller forcing other ants into subordinate roles. Penick says the changes in behavior and physical transformation appear to be linked by neural hormones . He says that these findings could provide insight into the relationship between hormones and genes expression in humans. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CLINT PENICK, RESEACRHER, NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Once we start disentangling how things like neurotransmitters in our brain interact with gene expression that is something that is very real and important for looking at human diseases, changes in human behavior in the future." Penick says while the ants may be small, they hold secrets that could have enormous potential for human health and physical development.