On How to Become an Ant by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert
On How to Become an Ant
Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, author of The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest
Several places in The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest, Skyco experiences life from the perspective of a different animal. I really enjoyed writing about these experiences because I think that anyone can put themselves in the mind of another animal once they learn something about that animal. Becoming an ant was particularly enjoyable because insects are so different from us.
For example, insects have faceted eyes, but what does that mean in terms of how they see or react? Insect eyes are made up of many small units (called ommatidia if you really want to get scientific), and each one of these facets focuses the image. Initially, people thought that meant insects would see an image composed of hundreds of little tiles. Old movies often used a kaleidoscope to suggest that a fly’s vision would be broken up into multiple little images. Now that we’ve studied insects in more detail and with finer instruments and equipment, most biologists think that insects see a smooth image rather like we do because their brains integrate all that information into a coherent whole. If you start to really think about that, then you’ll realize that what we see is also a product of our brain’s interpretation of reality. It is the reason we can be tricked by sleight of hand or by other illusions. What we see is not necessarily what is really there. It is a product of our brain’s interpretation. That just boggles my mind!
But insects aren’t as driven by sight as we are. To an insect, pheromones and other scents are much more important. They use their complex antennae to detect scents. If their antennae are damaged, their sense of the world is completely altered, sometimes to the point that they can no longer function. Humans may lose their sense of smell and still function, perhaps less joyfully, but to an ant, they would lose the ability to communicate with their companions, to detect their environment, and to find food or mates. They would lose so much information about their world that they couldn’t recover from it.
Another mind-boggling aspect of ants is their skeleton. Our skeleton is internal, but insects do things differently. They have a hard outer covering, and this means that they don’t grow like we do. Instead, they molt and actually crawl out of their old exoskeleton. If you have ever raised butterflies, you might have seen the adult butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. Since the caterpillar (the larval stage) is so physically different from the adult butterfly, the animal goes through a resting stage (the pupa) when it reorganizes all its tissues into the adult form before it emerges from the chrysalis. We call it a resting stage, but it is really a very busy time for the organism to rearrange its whole body. Some insects grow their wings in the final larval instar stage and don’t need a resting—pupal—stage. Cicadas and dragonflies, for example, molt their larval skin as they transform into adults, and I often find these shed skins on tree trunks or plant stems. Exoskeletons are lightweight, very strong, and don’t require large muscles to move. Insects aren’t injured when they fall out of a tree, they can recover immediately from a lost leg, they can carry heavy objects, and all because of their way of building a skeleton. Scientists and engineers are working on building exoskeletons for humans with damaged limbs, and they studied insects to figure out how to articulate the joints.
Ants are social creatures. So are we, but again, the way ants interact socially is different from our experience. They all work together, but in a strict hierarchy. They don’t change jobs based on what they are good at, but they do change some of their tasks based on what is needed. Big soldier ants, for instance, are always soldiers, but little workers may start out working inside the nest and then graduate to working outside as they age. There are many other aspects of their social behavior that I enjoyed learning about. It would be fun to write a whole story from the perspective of an ant!
When I write about animals or anything else, I describe a little about what I have learned from them and I try to project that knowledge into my characters. I’ve spent time learning about ants, but also about hunting, throwing an atlatl, native people from the southeastern United States, and the English exploration of the region. All of that makes its way into the book, but hopefully in a way that tells an interesting story—a story that you can learn from. I see The Legend of Skyco as an entertaining form of teaching, of turning some rather academic historical documents into engaging stories.