Lord of the Ants
Students compare ant characteristics and conduct their own local species inventory.
Students will be able to:
characteristics, noting similarities and differences.
understand the concept of biodiversity.
reasons why biodiversity is important.
area for the occurrence and distribution of plants and animals.
Two to three class periods if both
activities are completed. Each part can be done as a stand-alone activity or in
conjunction with the other activity.
- field journals for notes
about and drawings of organisms
- magnifying glasses for each
- plant and animal field
Biologist Edward O. Wilson
received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he became a member of the
faculty in 1956. Though formally retired since 1997, Wilson continues to work
as Emeritus Pellegrino University Research Professor of the Museum of
Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He has written 20 books, won two Pulitzer
prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species.
Wilson first distinguished himself
in the 1950s by becoming the world's leading authority on ants. His discoveries
included the finding that ants communicate primarily through pheromones. He identified 624 ant species in one genus—Pheidole—and named 337 of them. One of his
books, Pheidole in the New World, includes his own detailed
line drawings of the ants' distinguishing characteristics, such as color, head
shape, striations on the head, and the shape of the spine, along with the
location of the type-specimens; the derivation of the name; diagnosis,
measurements, color, geographical range, and biology for each species.
As an insect researcher, Wilson
demonstrated the genetic underpinnings of the complex social behavior of ants
and other species. In 1975 he extended his theories to all species, including
humans, with the publication of his influential and controversial book Sociobiology:
The New Synthesis. Wilson defined
sociobiology as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all
social behavior." By applying evolutionary principles to the social
behavior of animals, including humans, Wilson established sociobiology as a new
scientific field. He argued that all animal behavior, even that of humans, is
influenced by genes and is never entirely a result of free will.
Wilson also has been a major force in efforts to maintain Earth's variety
of life in all forms, levels, and combinations—its biodiversity, a term
he coined. In his book The Diversity of Life, Wilson describes how an intricately interconnected natural system is
threatened by a man-made biodiversity crisis he calls the "sixth extinction."
His most recent work has focused on drawing public attention to the impact
human activity has had on life on the planet; his hope is that such awareness
will bring needed changes in public policy. One of Wilson's methods for
accomplishing this has been to promote hands-on, public science programs such
as BioBlitz, a 24-hour survey of all living organisms in an ecosystem. He also
played a part in initiating development of the Encyclopedia of Life, an online
reference tool that eventually will include information on all 1.8 million
species currently known to science. Wilson anticipates that this tool will
improve our understanding of the natural environment and its value and will
help inspire its conservation.
Part A: Ants: Up Close and Personal
Show the first two minutes of
the video (through the section on ants) of the Video Portrait of E.O. Wilson
Google Video. Have students write down some of the
characteristics Wilson uses to classify ants. (Characteristics he mentions
include the line of the back of the head, the length of the head, and whether
there is a spine.)
Set up the ant slides in the
microscope(s) and have students take turns looking at ants up close. Ask
students to sketch what they see and, as a class, use references to identify
the parts of an ant.
Explain to students that they
will be comparing characteristics of different species of the ant genus Pheidole. Organize the class into teams and distribute the
Comparing Ant Characteristics
student handout to each team. Before students search, review hierarchical
classification with them (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and
Show students how to search and
compare ant photos in the Insect Database of Harvard University's Museum of
Comparative Zoology (MCZ). To view the species that Wilson has discovered:
- Click on "Search."
- Select "Hymenoptera" from the Order
- Type "Pheidole Wilson" in the Name
- Select "All" from the Records per
page drop-down menu.
- Leave all other fields empty.
- Click on "Records with images only"
option underneath the search fields.
- Click on "Submit."
- Click on the link under "Images" to
view images of the ant.
In the interview, Wilson states
that even within the ant genus Pheidole,
"when you have seen one ant you have not seen them all." Have
students use the MCZ database to compare characteristics of different Pheidole. To compare the images:
Click on link
under "Species name" to learn more about each ant listed. Click in
the link next to "Images" to display photos of the ant.
After an image
has appeared, click on the "(compare)" link in the left hand column
(under either "habitus lateral view" or " head frontal
view"). This displays whichever view you have chosen for all species of the current genus.
Click on one of the small images in the left-hand
column to see it in the larger window. To return to the previous ant, click the
browser's Back button. Click on the ant you are currently viewing to
enlarge it; clicking on it again will return it to its original size.
Have each team use its handouts
to compare three Pheidole species. Teams
should compare different species. Once each team has chosen a set of three
species, have a student from each group write their selections on the board so
that other teams will not duplicate their choices (the first team to write a
species on the board gets to study that species). If students are having
trouble comparing the ants on the computer screen, you may want to have them
print out and compare an enlarged version of each ant's lateral and/or
head views. Or, you can choose the species ahead of time and print out a table
set of images for each team.
When students are finished, hold
a discussion about what they found. What were some of the similarities and
differences among the species? What might be some possible reasons for so much
variety within the same genus?
Part B: BioBlitz
Before the Lesson
Read the Backyard Blitz
Educator's Guide for tips on how to prepare for and run a 30-minute
Gather all the materials each
team will need for its BioBlitz.
Ask students if they have ever
heard of the term biodiversity. Work as
a class to come up with a definition for biodiversity. (First used by
E. O. Wilson in 1988, the term biodiversity
signifies the number and variety of living organisms. Biodiversity can be
measured according to many different scales, from the very small [assessing
genetic diversity of a species] to the very large [assessing diversity of the
planet's ecosystem].) Why is
biodiversity important? (A more biodiverse ecosystem is more
productive and supplies more resources such as food, air, and water that its
members need for their survival. The more biodiverse an environment is, the
more likely it can endure and/or recover from disasters.)
Have students visit the Rock
Creek BioBlitz Blog site and read through the entries. They should start
with the "Welcome to BioBlitz" entry, then go to the bottom of the
right-hand column and read blog entries, moving upward toward the most recent
entry at the top of the column, "An Emerging Explorer." Discuss
with students why a BioBlitz might be an important activity. (Scientists
learn information about the number and distribution of plants and animals in a
specific region, and the public becomes more aware of biodiversity and its
Tell students they are going to
conduct their own mini-BioBlitz. Work with them to brainstorm a location for
the BioBlitz, such as a schoolyard or a nearby park.
Organize students into teams and
provide each team with a set of materials to observe and record organisms
during the mini-BioBlitz.
Conduct the BioBlitz with
students. In addition to having teams record
the plants and animals they find, have team members illustrate each organism
and record as many characteristics about the organism as they can. If possible,
bring plant and animal field guides for students to use as they identify their
Have students write
their own individual blog entries about what they found. Entries should include
the following information:
- what a
- where and
when they held their BioBlitz
- why such
events are organized
- how long
the BioBlitz lasted
tools they used to conduct their survey
- a list of
all the organisms they found, including where they found them and at what time
- what they
saw, felt, and heard at their BioBlitz
After students have completed
their blog entries, have them share the entries with the class. Discuss the
different kinds of information the entries contain. What organisms did they
find most of? Least of? Were there organisms they expected to find but did not?
What organisms might they have missed because they did not have the time to
look for them?
Use the following rubric to assess each team's work.
Part A: Ants: Up Close
use the database independently and accurately. They are able to complete the
worksheet and provide accurate descriptions of the different ant
assistance searching and/or using the comparison feature of the database.
They are able to complete the worksheet but may provide less accurate
descriptions of the different ant characteristics.
difficulties searching and/or using the comparison feature of the database.
They cannot provide accurate descriptions of the different ant characteristics.
Part B: BioBlitz Blogs
a detailed blog entry. They demonstrate an understanding of what a BioBlitz
is, why it is held, how it operates, and the data they collected.
a journal entry but have difficulty explaining what a BioBlitz is, why it is
held, how it operates, and/or the data they collected.
little time exploring the blog. Their journal entry lacks detail. They have
trouble explaining what a BioBlitz is, why it is held, how it operates,
and/or the data they collected.
The "Lord of the Ants" activity aligns with the following National Science Education
• Regulation and behavior
• Diversity and adaptations of organisms
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
• Populations, resources, and environments
History and Nature of Science
• Science as a human endeavor
• Nature of science
• History of science
Grades Grades 9-12
• Molecular basis of heredity
• Biological evolution
• Interdependence of organisms
• Behavior of organisms
Science in Personal and Social
• Natural resources
• Environmental quality
• Natural and human-induced
History and Nature of Science
• Science as a human endeavor
• Nature of scientific knowledge
• Historical perspectives
Classroom Activity Author
Margy Kuntz has written and edited
educational materials for more than 24 years. She has authored numerous
educational supplements, basal text materials, and trade books on science,
math, and computers.