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Lord of the Ants

Classroom Activity

Activity Summary
Students compare ant characteristics and conduct their own local species inventory.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • compare ant characteristics, noting similarities and differences.

  • understand the concept of biodiversity.

  • cite reasons why biodiversity is important.

  • survey an area for the occurrence and distribution of plants and animals.

Suggested Time
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.


Multimedia Resources
Part A

Part B

Additional Materials
Part A

Part B

  • field journals for notes about and drawings of organisms
  • magnifying glasses for each team
  • pencils
  • plant and animal field guides (optional)

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

  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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 species).

  4. 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:

    1. Click on "Search."
    2. Select "Hymenoptera" from the Order menu.
    3. Type "Pheidole Wilson" in the Name field.
    4. Select "All" from the Records per page drop-down menu.
    5. Leave all other fields empty.
    6. Click on "Records with images only" option underneath the search fields.
    7. Click on "Submit."
    8. Click on the link under "Images" to view images of the ant.
  5. 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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  1. Read the Backyard Blitz Educator's Guide for tips on how to prepare for and run a 30-minute BioBlitz.

  2. Gather all the materials each team will need for its BioBlitz.

The Lesson

  1. 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.)

  2. 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 importance.)

  3. 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.

  4. Organize students into teams and provide each team with a set of materials to observe and record organisms during the mini-BioBlitz.

  5. 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 organisms.

  6. Have students write their own individual blog entries about what they found. Entries should include the following information:

    • what a BioBlitz is
    • where and when they held their BioBlitz
    • why such events are organized
    • who participated
    • how long the BioBlitz lasted
    • what tools they used to conduct their survey
    • a list of all the organisms they found, including where they found them and at what time of day
    • what they saw, felt, and heard at their BioBlitz
  7. 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.




Needs Improvement

Part A: Ants: Up Close and Personal

Students can use the database independently and accurately. They are able to complete the worksheet and provide accurate descriptions of the different ant characteristics.

Students need 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.

Students have 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

Students create 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.

Students create a journal entry but have difficulty explaining what a BioBlitz is, why it is held, how it operates, and/or the data they collected.

Students spend 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 Standards (

Grades 5-8
Life Science

• 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
Life Science

• Molecular basis of heredity
• Biological evolution
• Interdependence of organisms
• Behavior of organisms

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
• Natural resources
• Environmental quality
• Natural and human-induced hazards

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.

Teacher's Guide
Lord of the Ants

VideoVideo Portrait of E.O. Wilson
Google Video
WebsiteInsect Database
Web Site
WebsiteRock Creek BioBlitz Blog
Web Site
PDFBackyard Blitz Educator's Guide
PDF Document

Koch Foundation