City-living ants have developed a taste for human food

The lower Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn. Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Some ant species on the streets of New York have developed a taste for human food, according to research.

The findings, in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, stem from a study which tested isotope levels on New York City ants to determine the their diet.

“We wanted to learn more about why some ant species are able to live alongside us, on sidewalks or in buildings, while other species stay on the outskirts of human development,” says Dr. Clint Penick, lead author of a paper on the work and a postdoctoral researcher at NC State.

This could also help determine which species are doing the most to clean up human waste.

“Human foods clearly make up a significant portion of the diet in urban species,” he says. “These are the ants eating our garbage, and this may explain why pavement ants are able to achieve such large populations in cities.”

There is, however, an exception to the urban ant trend of eating people food.

An ant species called Lasius cf. emarginatus, only found in New York within the past five years, is thriving on Manhattan’s street median strips. But Penick’s isotope analysis found that L. emarginatus has no preference for human food.

Instead, L. emarginatus appears to split its time between subterranean nests and foraging in the branches of trees along streets.

“This highlights the complex nature of urban ecosystems and how much we still have to learn about how these species relate to each other and to the environment,” Penick says.

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