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Marvel's Ant-Man And Its Movie Science [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

Aug 21, 2015 11:55 AM EDT
Would an ant be a renegade and lead millions?
Social-insect researcher Daniel Charbonneau talks about Marvel's Ant-Man. He and Dr. Anna Dornhaus recently published research on Temnothorax ants, regarding their findings that some ants just sit around not carrying heavy loads while the rest of the colony buzzes about them.
(Photo : wikipedia commons)

Ant-Man, the current feature film based on a Marvel Comics character and starring Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas, has grossed more than $157 million in box-office sales.

That's no lazy ant. Then again, why would an ant be lazy? Don't they work in a flurry and stagger around under loads much bigger than they are? Scientist Daniel Charbonneau, who has a Master's of Science from University of Quebec and is finishing a Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, can tell you about his chosen subject of ants and other social insects. He and his advisor, Dr. Anna Dornhaus, published research a few weeks ago about "lazy" ants. Certain ants, they noted, simply hang out while the other ants buzz about the colony. The focal ants are so inactive that that seems to be their role in the colony.

So, from that perspective, should Rudd's character sit around snacking and building mellow? Charbonneau studies emergent behavior in social insects, with a special focus on complex systems and interactive networks. We're going to talk with him today about Ant-Man.

You said you liked the movie and enjoyed watching it. Scientifically, what was the first thing that popped out at you as you viewed it?

As others have noted, most ants are female--not male, as Ant-Man's main character (played by Paul Rudd) is. All workers and the queens are females, and males are fairly useless. They don't really do any work, don't defend the colony. The males' purpose is to go out and mate, after which they die. But that wouldn't make much of a movie, it's true.

Still, the fact that Ant-Man is a man, and that the film referred to all the other ants as "he" and Rudd's character called them "buddy," etc.--stuck out a bit. I played along, because it's a fun movie and it's really about a man in a suit, playing a Marvel character. But I was also thinking, "In my mind, these are all females, so why refer to them as males?" That said, the film seems to imply, at the end, that Rudd's daughter and the daughter of a character who is the "Old Ant-Man" will join forces and be in a sequel. There's a bit of sly allusion to that.

In the film, an ant that was accidentally enlarged in a climactic scene later serves as a sort of family pet for Paul Rudd's daughter, played by Abbie Ryder Fortson. What would you say about the likelihood of ants reaching such B-movie size?

There are reasons that social insects don't get that big. For one thing, they don't have lungs; instead, oxygen diffuses into their blood. As you get larger, you need much more oxygen. As a very large insect, the amount of oxygen you'd need would be huge. We think now that insects could grow much larger in prehistoric times (as we know they did) because so much more oxygen existed in the atmosphere then.

What is the role of the ant queen in the movie?

There's no mention of the ant queen. While all the flying ants in the movie are portrayed as males, they'd actually be queens. But in nature, the queen doesn't have a very active role in a colony. The film mentioned that the ants "need a leader," but in reality a queen is not a leader--she's fed by the workers and just sits there and produces other ants.

Yellow-Jacket is Ant-Man's enemy in the film. Would you see them as natural combatants?

In nature, yellow-jackets and ants don't really interact. At the same time, in the film, Yellow-Jacket is just some other guy in some other suit, as happens in comic-book character movies, so it's okay. They're both social insects--so, putting them together is kind of interesting. But in reality, ants' biggest conflicts are with other ants. So really, it should be Ant-Man vs. Ant-Man.

For instance, ants have aggression even within a species: colony vs. colony. One of the rare exceptions to this is the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile), which has been in California since 1907. Currently, they're also found in Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon, Texas and Washington. There's some debate about whether they're actually one huge colony or a few very large ones--or whether they're not super-colonies at all. But even if they are separate colonies, they display very little aggression toward each other, which is weird for ants--but leaves them with time to out-compete other ant species. Besides having huge colonies, they take over food sources and fare well in urban environments. It would be really interesting to look at wars among ants, like between the Linepithema humile and others.

What would you like to see in a fun, ant-oriented movie?

Ant-Man included four out of the about 12,000 ant species currently described by science, among 22,000 possible species on Earth. The film included bullet ants, fire ants, crazy ants, and carpenter ants. I'd like to have seen much more diversity of ants in a storyline, and more emphasis on the fact that ants are not really led.

A proper Ant-Man probably wouldn't be that smart -- the character would need a few tasks and would do its small part, and hopefully things would work out all right. Ants are not especially smart individually, but collectively, they have power.

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