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Study Shows Some Worker Ants Don’t Work At All

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Last summer, researchers at the University of Illinois revealed that most bees aren’t as busy as we give them credit for, and a small group of workers handles the bulk of the labor in a hive. Now, another research team has taken the famously industrious ant down a peg, showing that many ants don’t do their fair share of work—or any work at all.

In many types of social insect, entomologists have found workers that really don’t do much. In some cases, researchers report that half or more of the bugs in a colony are inactive and spend their time just hanging around. Daniel Charbonneau and Anna Dornhaus are biologists at the University of Arizona’s Social Insect Lab, where they primarily study Temnothorax rugatulus, a species of ant found throughout the Western U.S. and Canada. They’ve seen plenty of lazy ants first-hand during their research, but it wasn’t clear whether these ants were consistently inactive or simply taking a break or working in shifts. In a new study, the pair shows that these ants are dedicated to being bums, and that might actually be their job.

The scientists collected five colonies of the ants around Tucson and, using a microscope and thin wire, painstakingly marked 250 workers with unique combinations of paint spots so they could be identified and tracked. They let the ants go about their business for three weeks and recorded them on video for a few minutes at regular intervals. They then went through their footage and recorded what each of the tagged ants was doing.

They found that around 25 percent of the ants were inactive throughout the study. Differences in rest schedules and work shifts didn’t explain the difference, because no matter what time the videos were taken, the same ants were still standing around. These ants were so consistent at doing nothing, the researchers say, that it looks like some workers “effectively specialize in ‘inactivity’” the same way others specialize in foraging for food or tending to the colony’s larvae.

Why do so many ants dedicate themselves to doing so little? Charbonneau and Dornhaus’ study didn’t try to figure that out, but they suggest plenty of ideas that can be tested. First, they say, the inactive ants may have a job to do that they just didn’t see during their short window of ant-watching, maybe a task that’s only performed at a certain time of year or at a specific point in the ants’ life cycle. These particular ants could have also been too young to start working, or too old to continue working and were living the easy life of insect retirement.

They might also be a kind of reserve work force that springs into action when other workers die or the workload in the colony suddenly increases, though other studies testing that idea with different insects found little support for it and showed that when more labor is needed, the ants that are already working just work harder and increase their activity.

Another possibility is that the lazy ants are “behaviorally idle” but not “functionally idle,” and have jobs that don’t require much movement or look like work, such as acting as live feeding stations and regurgitating food for other ants when needed, or relaying chemical messages around the nest.

Finally, the researchers say these ants might just be selfish, shirking their assigned duties so they can conserve energy and minimize their exposure to danger.

“Ultimately, the question of why colonies would produce so many inactive workers, in spite of potentially high production and maintenance costs, is still very much a mystery,” the scientists write, one that will be solved only with more experiments testing all these ideas and others. For now, they urge other ant researchers to not write inactive ants off as inefficient or unimportant just because they don’t do active tasks. Lazy ants are a distinct group with their own unique set of behaviors and characteristics, they write, and ignoring them and their main “activity” in certain studies may skew our understanding of ants’ social structure and division of labor.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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Animals
10 Notable Gestation Periods in the Animal Kingdom
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The gestation periods of the animal kingdom are varied and fascinating. Some clock in at just a few weeks, making any human green with envy, while others can last more than a year. Here are 10 notable gestation times for animals around the globe. The lesson? Be thankful that you’re not a pregnant elephant.

1. ELEPHANTS: 640-660 DAYS

Elephants are pregnant for a long time. Like really, really long. At an average of 95 weeks, the gestation period is more than double the length of a human pregnancy, so it shouldn't come as a shock that female elephants don't often have more than four offspring during their lifetimes. Who has the time?

2. HIPPOS: 8 MONTHS

A photo of a mother hippo and her baby in Uganda

Yes, it takes less time to make a hippopotamus than it takes to make a human.

3. GIRAFFE: 14-15 MONTHS

Baby giraffes can weigh more than 150 pounds and can be around 6 feet tall. Another fascinating tidbit: giraffes give birth standing up, so it's pretty normal for a baby to fall 6 feet to the ground.

4. KILLER WHALE: 17 MONTHS

There’s a reason for the long wait: after that 17 months, Baby Shamu emerges weighing anywhere from 265 to 353 pounds and measuring about 8.5 feet long. Yikes.

5. OPOSSUM: 12-13 DAYS

A baby opossum wrapped up in a blanket

Blink and you'll miss it: This is the shortest gestation period of any mammal in North America. But since the lifespan of an opossum is only two to four years, it makes sense.

6. GERBILS: 25 DAYS

Hey, they get off pretty easy.

7. GORILLAS: 8.5 MONTHS

It's not a huge surprise that their gestational periods are pretty similar to ours, right?

8. BLACK BEAR: 220 DAYS

A pair of black bear cubs

Also less than a human. Interestingly, cubs might only be 6 to 8 inches in length at birth and are completely hairless. 

9. PORCUPINE: 112 DAYS

This is the longest gestation period of any rodent. Thankfully for the mother, porcupine babies (a.k.a. porcupettes) are actually born with soft quills, and it's not until after birth that they harden up.

10. WALRUS: 15 MONTHS

Baby walruses? Kind of adorable. They certainly take their sweet time coming out, though.

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