A paper recently showed up on the BioRxiv server which made some pretty interesting claims. According to the paper, Florida carpenter ants, which produce poison in a special section of their abdomen to spray at enemies, also ingest their own acidic poison as a pesticide. While the paper has not passed peer-review yet, as the BioRxiv server is a place where papers are published in advance of peer-review, but the concept is intriguing. It also has some interesting implications for a creation model.
It has been known for a while that some ants have poison glands in their rear end that they use as defense mechanisms against predators. What this study did, however, was not related to their predators. Instead, the researchers fed two groups of ants. They then prevented one set of ants from reaching back to their rear ends, while permitting the other to do so. After some time, the pH in the ant’s stomachs was checked. Despite being fed the same food approximately the same length of time previously, ants permitted to react normally had lower pH’s in their stomachs than those prevented from acting normally. This indicated that the ants’ normal behavior was to take acid from their poison glands and ingest it, lowering the pH in their guts.
To figure out why the ants were ingesting their own acidic poison, the researchers fed both groups of ants a food containing a pathogen. The pathogen has the potential to kill ants. They then prevented one group of ants from ingesting their own acid poison, while permitting the second to do so. A control group was similarly split, except they were not fed the pathogen. The control group showed little difference in survivability of the ants. On the other hand, the experimental group that was not permitted to ingest its poisonous had a much higher mortality rate than those that could ingest the poison. It appears that the poison does not just function as a deterrent to predators. It also functions as an antiseptic, killing any pathogens that are in the food the ant eats.
This raises some very interesting questions. Why, for example, does the poison that is so effective on predators, not kill or severely weaken the ant? Undoubtedly there is an, as yet, unknown mechanism that will eventually be discovered but the real question being asked here is, where did said mechanism come from? And how did it arise? Which leads to a follow-up question of, even assuming it could arise naturally, how does the ant know to use it? How does the ant know that the acid is harmful to predators, but does not harm itself? How was that learned? And, given that this behavior occurs in worker ants, it is not heritable by means of epigenetics, as worker ants have no offspring. There are a lot of unanswered questions here, some of which will be very difficult for evolutionary scientists to answer.
Creationists have issues of their own with these ants, but for wildly different reasons. What purpose did the defensive mechanisms serve before the fall? While ants are probably not alive according to the Biblical definition, arguing that the poison served as an antiseptic before the fall opens up a pandora’s box of potential diseases in God’s perfect world that is probably best left closed. However, because ants were probably not alive by the Biblical definition, the explanation of defense becomes viable. If animals were eating ants, which were probably not alive Biblically, then they could have been designed with defense structures, including these poison glands.
This does raise another question, however. Carpenter ants, known for chewing through wood, are incredibly diverse at the genus level. Are they all one, widely diverse, kind? Or are there multiple kinds in this monstrous genus? Answering this is complicated by the fact that ants likely survived the flood in higher numbers than animals on the Ark by clinging to floating vegetation. So it is possible that ant kind(s) do not share a single common ancestor even at the time of the Flood but go back to the creation. Because we do not have a firm grasp of where the kind is in these ants, it is difficult to know whether this system was built into the original kind or the result of a post-fall adaptation. I’m inclined to suggest the former option, but until we get a baraminology of ants that is not statistical, this question remains unanswered.
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