Short films about natural history, behaviour, ecology and evolution of ants, including comparisons with other social and solitary insects
Christian Peeters talks about a career studying ants
I was born in Belgium and never cared much about Nature during my youth. When I was 15 years old, my family moved to South Africa and that triggered a big change in my life. I spent more and more time in stunning natural places, and my interests changed. I started university aiming to do 'ecology' (whatever this meant...). I remember a fieldtrip a few years later when I first looked at insects under a microscope, and how amazed I was at the incredible body details. Later I did a project on weaver ants (Oecophylla), and I have been a myrmecologist ever since.
Walking outdoor, humans come across many different ants that are always busy looking for or carrying food. Then they disappear in their nest and I was always intrigued by what may be happening inside, deep underground. Over the last 40 years I have collected the colonies of over 100 different species and studied them in the laboratory. Once settled in plaster nests, ants organize themselves very quickly. With a microscope, we can observe interactions among adults and brood through the glass roof. And after painting some workers with colour marks, they can be followed over time, leading to the emergence patterns. Finally, dissection of previously observed queens and workers reveals valuable information about mating status and ovarian activity.
I began my career studying ponerine ants - sometimes called 'primitive' because they look similar to the solitary wasp ancestors. Colonies are simple with a dozen large workers - making it possible to dig nests and collect every single adults and even larvae and eggs. Then we observe and manipulate colonies in the laboratory. Over the years I got opportunities to travel on all continents and increase my sampling of ant species.
I shifted to lineages with larger and more complex colonies with minute workers. The insights obtained in my early years - simple societies where queens and workers have similar abilities - proved valuable.
480 million years ago, some crustaceans walked out of the oceans and invaded dry land. This was the start of the successful insect saga. Crustaceans already had a jointed exoskeleton and segmented parts. Insects became smaller, with only six legs and the innovation of wings. The numerous benefits of flight (foraging, dispersal, escape from enemies) allowed rapid diversification. Metamorphosis led to ecological separation between larvae and adults, expanding food resources. By the time of the first dinosaurs, fossils inform about a huge number of beetles, butterflies, flies and wasps. All perfect miniaturised machines but, importantly, they all continued solitary lives...
Ants evolved from a solitary wasp that lays her eggs in several paralysed prey, each enough food for the larva to become adult without further help from her mother. The first ant societies evolved when workers became wingless and remained with their mother in one same nest. Over 100 million years, ant colonies became more and more complex as a result of the rise of flowering plants and associated insects. But the social formula did not change: a division of labour between childless workers and queens (reproductives) that fly only once at the beginning of their lives, to disperse and mate with foreign males.
Most ant species evolved minute workers, allowing colony size to increase considerably and innovate lifestyles: army-like hunting, agriculture, sophisticated nests. Symbioses with plants, fungi, bacteria and other insects evolved. As a result of more varied diets (carnivorous, scavengers, herbivorous, ...), the ants (15000 species known) play a key role in all terrestrial ecosystems. The biomass of all living ants exceeds 20% of total animal biomass.
Christian explains Ant Life Everything we know about these social insects
WHY WE ANIMATE ANTS?
Ten years ago I teamed up with Naret PHANSUA, who is concept artist in Thailand. We created virtual ants that are copies of the living species, and we animated their behaviour in a realistic way. This led to the series "Nous, les Fourmis..." in which ants talk and explain their lives.
Now we will use a different format mixing animation, drawings, field photos and videos, together with an off-voice. 3D animation brings many advantages to a documentary about ants or insects. We can design specific scenes to show exactly the behaviours under focus, using the best angles and ideal group composition (queens, workers, brood, ..) - and leaving out distracting features. We can also go inside the body of ants, to show you muscles and glands.