Photo courtesy of Anna Dornhaus

Do you ever feel as if you could do your bosses' jobs better than they can? Or do you ever think about marching into a whole new career?

If so, new research from the University of Arizona suggests that you might fit in nicely in an ant colony.

One might think that someone who specializes in a specific task would be best at that job, but with ants it turns out that's not the case, said Anna Dornhaus, a UA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who studies insect social organization.

Dornhaus measured the performance of ants with specialized jobs and compared it with those who act as ants-of-all-trades. She learned they perform equally well.

"Everyone thinks that division of labor is great, but there have been few studies that quantify the division of labor with insects," Dornhaus said.

The study offers a new twist to the old theory that ants are successful because of job specialization within the colony.

But don't go quitting your job quite yet. Dornhaus said that although ants learn, too, human job training involves much more sophistication and depth, so people often benefit by sticking with one area of expertise.

To observe the ants at work, Dornhaus and researchers painted rock ants, which are about half the size of a grain of rice, using a wire and eight colors of model-airplane paint. With each ant getting a specific color combination, researchers were able to observe patterns in their behavior.

Another finding of the research showed that a small percentage of the ants pulled most of the weight within the colony, with only about 10 percent actually working.

As a lab experiment, Dornhaus removed the roof of an ant colony's nest, forcing the insects to relocate. When it came time to find an empty nest and transport eggs and larvae, only a small group did the majority of the work.

"A large number won't participate at all," Dornhaus said. "That small percentage will actually physically move some of the other ants to the new nest."

But the colony wasn't dependent on those motivated individuals. When Dornhaus removed the small working minority from the colony, another small group of ants rose to the occasion and shouldered responsibilities.

Maybe they were just being lazy, but one of Dornhaus' theories is that the inactive ants' role is to be reserves or backups in case anything happened to the workers.

Dornhaus earned her Ph.D. from the University of Würzburg in Germany for a thesis studying bee behavior. She plans to continue her study of ants and other social insects at a UA lab in part to better understand some of the surprising results of her recent study.

If you were an ant ...

• You'd be able to lift about 20 times your own body weight.

• You'd have a larger brain than any other insect.

• Your life expectancy would be 45 to 60 days.

• You might be one of 10,000 known species.

• You might be a shade of green, red, brown, yellow, blue or purple.

• You'd have two stomachs — one for storing food for yourself and another for storing food for other ants.

If you were a working ant ...

• When it comes to choosing a career path, ants have many options. There are 20 to 30 types of jobs within a colony, including nest-building, food collection, cleaning, defense, and caring for offspring.

● Contact NASA Space Grant intern Evan Pellegrino at 573-4125 or at epellegrino@azstarnet.com.