I want to add realistic elements to a futuristic environment I am working on. Realistically, the animals we know of today will change over time and it's more likely smaller ones would survive, so I decided to start with ants since they're common and will probably be around for a long time.

I don't quite know why ants have such a wild looking morphology compared to mammals, but I would guess it has something to do with being able to leverage their limbs and mandibles without breaking in the most efficient way possible, similar to the way a human back or a bird's neck is curved to diffuse stress so that the culmination of it doesn't transfer to a singular end-point that cuases a fracture.

What I don't know exactly is "why" these specific drastic curves help and how to predict what kind of curves in an ants' back, legs, head, mandibles or abdomen would be more efficient than current ones to predict what the morphology of an ant will tend towards over thousands of years.

However, function also matters for how an animal evolves. So, if I assume most of their time is spent digging and foraging, how can I use that to figure out some of the traits their morphology will tend towards?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. Please take the tour and visit the help center to make yourself familiar with our community. I am not sure ants are the best choice for evolutionary change forecast. They were around when dinosaurs were on Earth, and they haven't changed much. This might mean they are quite successful as they are. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jan 20, 2019 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ Saying they haven't changed much is definitely an incorrect statement because you're broadly neglecting their extremely diverse speciation. Some of the general aspects of ants have probably stayed somewhat the same, but over the course of millions of years, it's literally impossible for them not to change. In fact, their mere ability to adapt to so many different locations is also part of what makes them more unique. $\endgroup$
    – Vane Voe
    Jan 20, 2019 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ Since this is entirely determined by what the future environment will look like, the question is, what does your future environment will look like? Has the climate changed? What species have gone extinct? What plants can grow? Basically anything that relates to the life of ants can be serve as a reason for ants to evolve. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2019 at 11:37
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    $\begingroup$ I've reluctantly voted to close because you don't seem to have done much research into this. For example you say, "it's more likely smaller [animals] would survive." But you give no reason or research to back this up. Wrt evolution, you seem to assume it's like manufacturers always trying to bring out a newer and 'better' model. In fact evolution works more on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" basis. Horshoe crabs have existed for 450 million years with no noticeable change.They are never going to develop wings or a 'better' shape. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoe_crab $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2019 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not going to VTC. The broader sense of this question is intriguing. It would be important that it not be too broad, however, asking what developmental markers could be used to suggest future evolution is a pretty good worldbuilding process. @L.Dutch point out that ants haven't changed much since the Mesozoic - that's what the OP needed to hear. The markers suggests ants have reached the pinnacle of their evolution (insofar as we understand it). Helping a new user to scope the question by identifying specifically which ant, etc., would help, but I think VTC is premature on this one. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 20, 2019 at 16:38

3 Answers 3

  • "The animals we know of today will change over time":

    Broadly speaking this is true. Species evolve. Some go extinct, some split into two or more new species.

    The problem is that natural evolution does not have goal, and it's not directional. One cannot tell where evolution will go.

    There is a subgenre of more-or-less hard science fiction called speculative evolution. If one is interested in speculative evolution, probably the best starting point is the respected Speculative Evolution Wiki at Fandom.com.

    Some recommended books are:

    • Douglas Dixon, After Man, a Zoology of the Future (first published in 1981, new editions in 1998 and 2018), The New Dinosaurs (1988) and Man After Man (1990). Douglas Dixon is a zoologist, and the books look and feel like scientific zoological books. Very highly recommended.

    • Nemo Ramjet (pen name of C. M. Kosemen), All Tomorrows, a splendidly illustrated science-fiction novel telling "the journey of the evolution of human race over the next billion years".

    We should also not forget the excellent semi-pseudo documentary BBC mini-series The Future Is Wild (2002).

  • "It's more likely smaller ones would survive":

    What is indeed noticeable is that there are many more animals with small body size than animals with large body size, and many more species with smaller body size than species with large body size; so that, by pure luck, one of the species of small animals may survive when all the species of large animals went extinct. For example, there are three species of elephants and 700 species of mice (with 37 species only in the house mouse genus, Mus); a female mouse produces 50 to 100 new mice per year, whereas a female elephant produces one new elephant every 5 years.

  • "I decided to start with ants since they're common":

    Which ants? The family Formicidae contains an estimated 22,000 species, of which some 12,500 have been described and named.

  • "I don't quite know why ants have such a wild looking morphology compared to mammals":

    Because they are not mammals? Ants are insects, members of the phylum Arthropoda, only very very very distantly related to the members of the phylum Chordata. Among insects and Arthropods in general, ants do not look very wild at all. They actually are not at all strange among insects, and look quite similar to their close relatives the wasps and the bees (order Hymenoptera).

  • "I would guess it has something to do with being able to leverage their limbs and mandibles without breaking in the most efficient way possible":

    Your guess is as good as anybody's. This does not mean that it is not technobabble.

  • "What the morphology of an ant will tend towards over thousands of years":

    Ants are a very old lineage. Here is a picture of one the oldest known ants, Sphecomyrma, which lived in the Cretaceous.

    Sphecomyrma freyi, a 90 million old ant discovered embedded in amber in the cliffs of Cliffwood, New Jersey. Despite its very ant-like appearance, its spectacularly good degree of preservation allowed paleontologists to see that it is quite close to the point of separation between ants and wasps. Picture from Wikimedia, public domain, reproduced after E. O. Wilson, F. M. Carpenter and W. L. Brown, "The First Mesozoic Ants, with the Description of a New Subfamily", in Psyche: A Journal of Entomology, 74: 1–19, 1967.

    See that 90 million years old ant? It looks like an ant. I am definitely certain that in a few thousands of years ants will continue to look like ants. A few thousand years is nothing on the geological scale. Remember the Romans? They lived two thousand years ago; and they looked exactly like us, as did the ancient Greeks (three thousand years ago) and the Hittites (four thousand years ago) and the ancient Egyptians (five thousand years ago).

  • "Figure out some of the traits their morphology will tend towards?":

    It simply does not work this way. Evolution is not directed towards a goal. Looking backward it sometimes looks as if it was directed towards a goal, but that's because we only see one line in a maze.

    This being said, ants do continue to evolve. One of the most striking developments in ants, a development which happened under our very eyes, so to say, is the emergence of supercolonies, which are associations of individual colonies united by a sort of natural non-agression pact. One can think of supercolonies as being the next level of eusociality, allowing the supercolony to expand over enormouse distances:

    In 2000, an enormous supercolony of Argentine ants was found in Southern Europe (report published in 2002). Of 33 ant populations tested along the 6,004-kilometre (3,731 mi) stretch along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts in Southern Europe, 30 belonged to one supercolony with estimated millions of nests and billions of workers, interspersed with three populations of another supercolony. [...] This case of unicoloniality cannot be explained by loss of their genetic diversity due to the genetic bottleneck of the imported ants.

    In 2009, it was demonstrated that the largest Japanese, Californian and European Argentine ant supercolonies were in fact part of a single global "megacolony". This intercontinental megacolony represents the most populous recorded animal society on earth, other than humans.

    Another supercolony, measuring approximately 100 km (62 mi) wide, was found beneath Melbourne, Australia in 2004.

    (Wikipedia, s.v. Ant colony)

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    $\begingroup$ “Evolution is not directed towards a goal. Looking backward it sometimes looks as if it was directed towards a goal, but that's because we only see one line in a maze.” - This is a beautiful way of expressing that particular point. Oh, +1 by the way. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jan 21, 2019 at 8:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Vane Voe - Dinosaurs progressively got bigger as time went by. Ants have been roughly the same for millions of years so a few thousand more isn't going to make a difference. As others have said, the only thing that is likely to engender change is a change in environment. You haven't told us what environment changes there might be in your scenario. If there are no environmental changes then there is no reason for ants to change. They are already the most efficient general-purpose miniature robot ever to exist. If you have a mathematical model, why not present it in your question. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK: Dinousaurs in general did not get "bigger as time went by". Some lineages evolved towards bigness. Most did not. There have always been small dinosaurs. And never forget that genetic drift is a powerful force, especially for a species with a small effective population size. All things being equal, if a small population becomes geographically isolated it will almost certainly evolve on a path different from the rest of the species. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 21, 2019 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ @ AlexP - Ants are among the most consistently conservative species wrt morphology. "Hokkaido University researchers are finding evidence of natural selection that maintains the status quo among ant populations." global.hokudai.ac.jp/blog/… $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 9:49
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    $\begingroup$ @VaneVoe: "The average trend is that entropy increases, making it harder and harder to exploit sources of energy:" not on Earth. Earth has a constant influx of exergy in the form of light and heat from the Sun; Earth also has a nice system of radiating degrated energy back to space. In no meaningful way can we say that somehow we now have less free energy on Earth that what the dinosaurs had. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 21, 2019 at 9:50

Forgetting some of the throwaway lines like 'smaller animals will survive' issues in the question above, let's take a look at the specifics of ants and do some basic extrapolation on how they might evolve. But, in order to do that, we need to understand why they're successful in their current environment.

Ants, contrary to normal beliefs, wouldn't spend most of their time digging and foraging. The digging? Sure, there is some of that to be done, and the anthills that are built by ants are quite impressive, but remember that these are built over many generations of ants, because of the need to expand and support specific functions, like breeding.

Some anthills are designed (yes, designed) to incorporate a natural air conditioning model, often having a pool of water in them near air intakes before the hot air is extracted out the top via a chimney effect. For an unintelligent species, this is a pretty intelligent design and you'll find that over time, as the hill expands, this core design (and many other aspects of the ant-hill) are scaled up seamlessly as the colony grows. The point of all this being that while ants do grow their homes, it's not a core reason for them to exist.

As for foraging, it is true that some ants go looking for food, but once they've found it the far larger effort expenditure is retrieval. You don't have thousands of ants looking for food, you have thousands of ants carrying the food back once its found. But, it's important to note that ants aren't just gatherers. They're also farmers. Some species actually keep aphids almost like dairy cattle, using them as a source of honeydew. There's even ants out there that are mushroom farmers, essentially growing crops for the colony.

So, we have a species that seems to have a collective intelligence of some kind, that maintain a sophisticated homes, can manage crops and other animals, and have a foraging and retrieval cycle for their other food sources. How will they evolve?

One example of how that's happening is in the link you provided to Pharoah Ants. While many species of insects can only tolerate a single queen per colony, these ants have several and it seems to work well for them, even increasing genetic diversity within the colony. It is reasonably easy to extrapolate from such a feature that colonies could easily grow through mutual support at a rate that other insects may struggle with, especially in an environment of plentiful food and other resources.

Given that some ants already have wings, one other possible mutation would be in communication. It's generally believed that foraging ants leave a chemical trail to food on their way back which is how the retrieval corps gets organised so quickly. If your chemical could either;

1) Communicate location through abstract concepts, or 2) Be produced in higher volumes and dropped to the ground during flight,

your foragers could be winged, meaning they could cover a greater area. This would not be terribly dissimilar to what bees already do, but there would need to be a more detailed communication because the retrieval corps would likely not have flight capability so they would need a way to follow a ground trail explained by a flyer; not easy to do without dropping the chemical trail ala option 2.

Speaking of the retrieval corps, one of the benefits ants have in terms of their relative strength compared to body size is the square cube law. Basically what it says is that the volume of a creature increases exponentially to its size, meaning that the amount of effort it needs to apply in supporting itself as a percentage of the energy it can apply is greater. Put more simply, ants can support a great amount of weight by proportion to their body size specifically because they're small.

That said, that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. For one thing, they tend to carry things with their mandibles, not their legs. With stronger legs in the rear, they could develop grips on the soles of their forelegs, that could potentially be used to carry some light things. That's not viable as a scaleable option because 6 legs unless the segment holding the forelegs in their exoskeleton can bend sufficiently to make the ant appear to be standing upright, like a centaur. In the short term however stronger and larger mandibles are still likely to be the order of the day. So that means larger heads, larger mouths, and probably their forelegs moving slightly forward to support all this. In the long term, this could easily make them the strongest legs over time to counterbalance the weight they now carry in their mandibles. This would of course also make them more effective in inter-colony or inter-species combat.

The farming activities is the more interesting one. They may develop a little in size, and learn to domesticate other insects. They won't grow too much in size because otherwise their carapaces would have to alter a fair bit to ensure their current engineering doesn't get overwhelmed by the square cube law, but perhaps they could get big enough to domesticate some other species of insects other than aphids. Perhaps, if they get big enough, they could even domesticate some larger insects like cockroaches to act as a form of rideable animal. You could even have cavalry charges in combat with say termites, with the cokroaches providing an elevated platform from which the ants could strike.

All the above of course is pure speculation. I've just taken some of the traits I happen to know about in ants and extend them out to more optimal models. All this assumes of course a strong and steady food supply, but where environmental pressures tend to efficiency for reasons of competition, etc.

Being able to reproduce in greater numbers (multiple queens), being able to find food faster (aerial foragers), carry more of it in a single trip (larger mandibles) and domesticate more species are all existing pressures on ants that already drive their behaviours and their morphology. Whether or not any of this will come to pass is something beyond my ability to answer, but at the very least I hope I've given some food for thought.


For ants it's less about foraging and digging. If you look for the best diggers you wont necessarily find one species that is the best, since there are multiple ways to BE the best. You could optimize your ant to be a better digger, or you could optimize the amount of ants that can dig somewhere. Having smaller ants means you need less size for a chamber and tunnel to make them pass but also more trips to dig the same amount of cubic sand etc.

Foraging depends not on surface area (since Vane Voe asks for what a smaller surface area does as opposed to a change in environment). It depends on the environment and how the species deals with it. An example is the Harvester Ant (https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article%3Fid%3D10.1371/journal.pone.0063363&ved=2ahUKEwiugeqhvf7fAhUJYlAKHT9SDjgQFjAJegQIBRAB&usg=AOvVaw2EPQCJ-HWI5cdApT1t25R9&cshid=1548061026250) which already has several species in Texas with different preferences for area. Some prefer wooded wet areas while others prefer open dry areas.

A quick look at which ants are best at foraging also yields just about zero results (https://www.google.com/search?client=ms-android-sonymobile&ei=ZYdFXKqyKsrMwAL__IRo&q=best+ant+specirs+at+foraging&oq=best+ant+specirs+at+foraging&gs_l=mobile-gws-wiz-serp.3..33i10.10594.12678..13543...0.0..0.148.1064.2j7......0....1.........0i71j30i10.vp25jt9vH-E). It simply depends on the species and what type of environment they are made for.

But there is something that your research should have come across quickly: the Argentine Ant. This Ant sees colonies of the same species as a colony of their own, this means they'll not compete as much against each other (down to sharing their colony tunnels with 45.000 or more other colonies!) but will compete against other species of Ant. This is why the Argentine Ant is the most invasive ant species in the world, and given time could start to push out other ant species. Their greatest evolutionary trait is not their build or digging/foraging techniques, but their cooperation/lack of aggressiveness towards each other.


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