Forest of the Glowing Symbionts


Azteca ants constantly patrol their Cecropia tree, looking for intruders. When a large vertebrate, like a sloth or monkey, climbs onto the tree to eat its leaves, the vibrations alarm the colony and the ants fiercely swarm the tree, aiming to sink their sharp mandibles into the intruder to defend their host. I conducted a field experiment to test how colonies respond to vibration differently. To simulate a large intruder, I flicked the trees with a home-made flicking device (called the Flickomatic) and quantified the change in ant activity. This piece embodies actual trees and their colonies from this experiment. The lights within the trunk symbolize the ant colony, and the blinking corresponds to a quantified dataset on baseline ant patrolling behavior. When you shake the tree, the lights respond and the blinking switches to the dataset just after the tree was flicked. The colony activity eventually calms down to its normal patrolling behavior. A keen eye may detect how colonies have different responses to disturbance, which reflects their colony personalities.

Exhibited at The MonOchid Gallery (May 5 - Sep 1, 2017) and Onyx Art Gallery (Dec 1, 2017) in Phoenix, AZ.

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