The Biology Corner

Biology Teaching Resources

The Ant Odometer – Data Analysis

Have you ever thought about how ants navigate the world? Some ants use pheromones or other chemicals to follow trails. Other ants have a novel way of finding their way home; they count steps!
How do these little biological Fitbits do this? How did scientists confirm that the ants counted steps?

In this research study, scientists conducted a novel experiment to determine if ants measure distance by counting steps. This is a great activity to introduce biology students to scientific research and data analysis. Plus, it’s an engaging story about how research can sometimes require a little creativity. How would you test a hypothesis that ants count their steps to find their way home?

The Experiment

Scientists set up an experiment to determine if ants count their steps to return home. If students read the primary source for the research, they might have trouble visualizing the experiment. In this worksheet, I’ve simplified the methods. Basically, scientists trained ants to go from their home base to a food source. Once they were at the food source, they altered the legs of some of the ants, either making them longer or shorter. When they released the ants with the altered legs, the observed whether the ants could find their way home.

As a teacher, you probably know the value of visual aids. You can help students visualize the experiment by using toy ants, and showing how they walk to the food source and then return home. If the ants overshoot their home location, it is because their legs are longer and the number of steps to get home takes them past their home. Ants with short legs will not go far enough to find their home. Ants with unaltered legs serve as the control group.

Data Analysis

Once students understand the basics of the experimental design, they move onto the data. The graph shows a box and whisker plot, which might be something beginning students are not familiar with. But overall, even without this knowledge, students can grasp the outcome of the experiment.

Students examine the graphs and summarize the outcome of the experiment. The graph shows that unaltered ants will find their way home. Ants with longer legs (stilts) will overshoot the nest. Ants with shorter legs (stumps) won’t travel far enough.

If the methods still seem confusing to students, this is an excellent video explaining the methodology. Though I do recommend getting students to at least try to work through the difficult text before showing the video.

Related Activities on Experimental Design and Graph Analysis

``Exploration Roach  🪳- great starter activity for the beginning of the year; students observe how live Dubia roaches walk``

Fortune Telling Fish 🔥- Use the scientific method to determine what causes the fish the change when placed in the palm of the hand

Investigation:  What Are the Processes of Science 🫁– students design an experiment about lung capacity; requires spirometers, AP Biology

Is Microwaved Water Harmful to Plants 💧– use germinating seeds that have been soaked in distilled water and microwaved water

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