Tuesday 15 March 2016

Underground Ants Regrew Brain Parts to See the Light

by Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer   |   March 11, 2016 01:12pm ET

About 18 million years ago, army ants that were adapted to living underground — and had lost much of their sight — returned to the surface and regrew the parts of their brains related to vision, a new study has found.

But the brain benefits didn't end there. Not only did the ants recover a set of previously underused brain structures, but their overall brain size increased as well. In turn, this brain-size increase enhanced the ants' sensory input capabilities as well as their processing centers to handle a more complex environment.

I can see clearly now
The army-ant subfamily Dorylinae dates to about 78 million years ago, and most of these ants live underground at least part of the time; their eyes are either very small or completely absent. In the study, the researchers noted that this subfamily descended from a large-eyed ancestor whose vision capabilities and vision-related brain regions dwindled over time — a transition that occurred repeatedly within the ant lineage.

But what happened to one branch of the army-ant family was extremely unusual: After living underground for 60 million years, army ants from the Eciton genus headed back into the light, and over time, their brains changed dramatically as they adapted to living on the surface.

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