School of Life Sciences | Ask A Biologist

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Dr. Biology visits with Biologist Kate Ihle

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  • Behavior: in biology behavior is anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation. There are two types, innate (part of its nature) and learned behavior... more
  • Iridescence: bright rainbow-like colors that can change depending on the angle you look at them or the angle light hits them.
  • Solitary: living alone.

A Biologists Life in the Rainforest

The rainforest is filled with many wonderful plants and animals. Biologist Kate Ihle is learning about the life of the tiny, but colorful orchid bee. This jewel-like animal is unlike the honey bees you might know. They can be both social and solitary. In this video Dr. Biology talks with Dr. Ihle in her field laboratory located on the tiny Barro Colorado Island in the middle of the Panama Canal.

Ugly Bug Contest 2012

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  • Insect: major group of animals with a pair of wings and three pairs of legs... more
  • Taxonomy: the practice and science of classification which includes identifying and grouping like things. Its roots are in the Greek, taxis (order, or arrangement) and nomos (law or science). Biological classification... more

Help elect the 2012 Ugly Bug Contest winner. This years insect also has the chance to become the next 00 secret agent.

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Dr. Biology Visits the Laboratory of Michael Angilletta

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  • Thermoregulation: keeping body temperature from being too hot or too cold.

It is not always possible to see the inside of a working laboratory. These are places where scientists are learning about life on Earth. They may not be the CSI-type environment you see on television or in the movies, but they are just as amazing and in some cases even more amazing than what Hollywood could dream up.

Dr. Biology drops in on biologist Michael Angelletta and the researchers in his labortory. Besides getting a fun tour of the place, he learns how they study animals and their methods of heating and cooling their bodies. You can also read more about professor Angelletta in Hot Reserch.

These videos were filmed on the Arizona State University, Tempe Campus. We want to thank the student researchers in this film, Greg Adrian, Colton Smith and Donovan Kilby.

Ant Life Part 2

Teamwork is part of life for ants. These social insects live in a society where group work is wired into each individual’s brain. Listen in as co-host Jane Rector and Dr. Biology continue their conversation about the world of ants with biologist Jennifer Fewell. There is even talk of how basketball teams might take lessons from these tiny animals.

 

Content Info | Transcript


MP3 download | 13MB

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Topic Time
Intro 00:00
Do ants like doing different tasks? [the dishwasher model] 00:20
Some people have higher and lower threshold for work at school. 02:24
Jennifer has a question about queen brain size? 02:59
Jane's answer. 03:57
Jennifer reveals the answer. 04:18
Do you use a lot of technology in your research? [what is metabolic physiology?] 05:34
The story of guinea pigs and their method of digestion. [coprophagy] 06:31
Why would anyone study social insects? [the link between social insects and basketball] 07:36
Observing basketball games - players as ants - and information flow. 09:24
Have to play like a team to win - ants as a team. 10:08
Basketball teams that rely on one player.[relationship to entropy] 11:07
Are social insect scientists going to lend insight into basketball or does basketball hold some insight into social insects? 12:56
Can you predict basketball team success? 13:31
Strategies to defend or play against other teams. 14:08
When did you know you wanted to be a scientist? 15:18
Do you have a favorite book? 16:50
Jane's current favorite book. [post apocalyptic] 17:39
What would you do if could not be a biologist- what would you be or do? 18:22
Hints for writing projects like a book. 19:16
Writing is a skill set important to science. 20:19
What advice would you have for me? [Jane] 21:07
The importance of asking questions. 22:48
New challenge when you get a set of questions from a teacher. 23:34
Wrap up with Jennifer and Jane. 24:19
Sign-off 25:37

Transcript - (PDF)

Dr. Biology:  This is "Ask a Biologist," a program about the living world, and I'm Dr. Biology. We're back with part two of our show, with guest biologist Jennifer Fewell and co‑host Jane Rector, and Jane's many questions about ants and ant research.

Now, Jane remind me, where did we leave off?

Jane Rector:  You were talking about when the ants got older, they would do different tasks. Do they like different tasks? Or do they just know that it's the right task to do.

Dr. Jennifer Fewell:  Well, our data suggests that they actually, I guess you could say, like different tasks. Beyond the fact that they tend to do different tasks at different ages.

Also, if you take any two ants that are the same age, they're likely to actually prefer to do different tasks from each other. One might be more likely to guard, and the other one might be more likely to forage.

We've actually developed a whole model around this that we call the "dishwasher model," or the "response threshold model." Basically, what it says is that, you imagine that you start to perform a task when you notice that the task is there.

For example, you could notice that there are dishes in the sink and you need to wash them. So you wash the dishes.

Now, let's imagine that the different ants, or different people, have different thresholds that they notice the task for. So one person may not see the dishes because they haven't reached their threshold yet. But somebody else, the dishes in the sink might drive them crazy.

When that first person washes the dishes because they drive them crazy, they've actually taken the stimulus away from the second person. It's not your fault that you didn't do the dishes. It's the fault of the person who took the stimulus away.

Jane:  So when your mom might may say why didn't you do the dishes, you could say, "You took my stimulus away."

Jennifer:  [laughs] You could. Or you could say, "What dishes?"

So if you have a group of ants or a group of people with these different response thresholds, right, some will start performing one task, and then others will perform another task, and others will perform a third task.

Now you have different individuals getting different jobs done. You might have an ant that has a high threshold for all of the tasks, and we call that ant a couch potato. [laughter]

Dr. Biology:  Yes, or a teenager.

Jennifer:  [laughs] Or a teenager, yes.

Jane:  I noticed that in school, when I'm doing a project, some people have a really low threshold for people who don't do their work and don't follow through. Some people have a really high threshold where they just sit back, and relax, and say, "Oh, hey. Yeah, are you doing the work? OK, good job." Just sit back and watch them.

Jennifer:  That's right. You might get somebody who likes to write up the notes, or somebody who will take charge of the discussion, and then you might get somebody that says, "Oh, you guys are doing it." Yet you have to do the project anyway, right?

Jane:  Good job!

Jennifer:  The group has to get it done.

OK. I have a question for you. Imagine that you had an ant queen that had just mated. Then you had other ant queens that you allowed to excavate the nest, and go underground, and start to rear their brood.

If you measured the brain of the queen on the surface right before she excavated, and you compared it to the brain a couple of weeks later, which one would have the biggest brain? Or would it be the same?

Jane:  I think it's going to be the same, because, do brains actually decrease or increase in size?

Jennifer:  They can.

Jane:  They can? Wow.

Jennifer:  That's the first interesting question. Can brains change in size? In the ants, they actually can change in size.

Jane:  Wow.

Jennifer:  Here's a follow up question. When do you think she has to respond to the most complicated environment? Because that's what brains are for, right? They're for responding to complicated things.

Jane:  Probably when she starts out the colony, because she's just starting out. She has no worker ants. She has this tiny piece of fungus that she has to grow. She has to make the brooding care for the brood. I think that's probably the time that the brain has the most stimulation.

Jennifer:  Excellent. You got it right. When she mates, she actually has to fly around the external world. That's pretty complicated to navigate, right, in a 3‑D world.

Then she mates and she goes down and she has to excavate a nest. She has to take care of that fungus, and she has to produce brood. She has to do all of those different things. She has to multitask.

Then, after the workers are made, she gets to sit back and she only does one thing. She doesn't need that big brain anymore and it actually shrinks in size.

The part that shrinks the most is what they call the mushroom bodies, which are the part of the brain she uses to navigate in a complicated world.

Jane:  Oh, okay.

Dr. Biology:  It's actually after two weeks later, you'd say?

Jane:  A few weeks, yeah. You can compare the brain size right as they hit the ground to a few weeks later. Wait until the workers are produced, perhaps, and you're going to see a difference in brain size.

Jennifer:  Wow.

Dr. Biology:  Wow. Even more wow, can you imagine trying to measure the size of a brain of an ant?

[laughs]

Jane:  That would be like, "OK, how big is this?"

Jennifer:  I don't do that, but they do it down to the individual neuron.

[laughs]

Jane:  Oh, gosh. Do you use a lot of technology, or do you just go off by the ants?

Jennifer:  I collaborate with a lot of people that use a lot of technology. So my specialty is in Behavioral Analyses. But, I collaborate with someone who does Metabolic Physiology, so he can actually measure the metabolic rates of ants and look at how they change with colony size or with the tasks.

Jane:  What is Metabolic Physiology? I didn't quite...

Jennifer:  Metabolic Physiology is basically how your cells use energy. Have you heard of metabolic rate?

Jane:  Yes.

Jennifer:  Every organism has a metabolic rate. Every organism has to take in energy, break it up, and use it to do work.

Jane:  Like your heart rate, maybe?

Jennifer:  Like your heart rate, right, and also how you break down sugars and fats and proteins for energy.

Jane:  Like some… This is kind of gross. Guinea pigs take in the nutrients when they eat their food. It goes through the digestive system and comes out, but then they eat their feces.

Jennifer:  They eat their poop. Yeah.

Jane:  They eat their feces, too.

Jennifer:  Coprophagy.

Jane:  They eat their feces to get all the nutrients because they didn't quite get all the nutrients out of it when it went through the digestive system.

Jennifer:  Right. You know, that is actually a little bit related to leafcutter ants, right? They're eating plants. Plants are very hard to digest. You can't break down the cellulose. What they do is they let the bacteria in their gut‑‑in the hind end of their gut, unfortunately for us thinking about it‑‑digest the food. Then it goes through and it comes out, and now it's digested. Now they can eat it and actual absorb the nutrients. So the ants are doing the same thing with the fungus. They're putting the plants onto the fungus and letting the fungus break down the nutrients, and then they're eating the result.

Jane:  Oh, okay.

Dr. Biology:  So they have a fungus doing work for them.

Jennifer:  Yeah.

Dr. Biology:  When we have a lot of our biologists on the show, there are people that probably wonder why anyone would study social insects or study this kind of organism. We have a tendency, being humans, everything has to come back to the human themselves. We somehow have to relate it. Interestingly enough, you have some new research, and it really is quite new, that links social insects and basketball, which, to me, is pretty cool.

Jane:  Yeah. That's really kind of amazing how you linked basketball, how they passed the ball back and forth, to the ants.

Jennifer:  You think at first, here, that that's kind of a leap, right, between ants and basketball.  But ants, like other social insects, are really interesting to humans because they have complex social interactions that are more complicated, in a way, than anything else except for humans. When we want to look at how humans do social things, we often go to the social insects.

One of the things that social insects do really well is that they function as a team, right?. Everyone in the colony has a common goal, and that's for the colony to grow and the colony to reproduce. I thought, "Does that shape the way that they interact with each other?" The answer seems to be yes. They have very specific ways of moving information back and forth between them so that they can get things done.

Then I thought, "What kinds of human systems have those kinds of interactions?" I just happened to be a basketball fan. I love the Suns and I started to watch basketball games as if the players were ants. I started watching them moving the ball back and forth, back and forth, thinking about it as information flow. All of a sudden, the team was a network. I got really interested in finding out whether or not we could use network analyses to understand the game of basketball.

I approached a math professor who works on network analyses. We recruited some students who watched hours and hours and hours, and hours and hours and hours of basketball in the finals last year. We actually mapped out the 16 teams in the first round and their network interactions.

We found some very interesting things, one of which is that you have to play like a team to win. Which doesn't sound like news, but we can actually look at it visually and say, "This team is playing like a team more than that team's playing."

Jane:  So the ants, they kind of center on the queen, right?

Jennifer:  Yeah.

Jane:  But the workers are a team because they all take the food together. You can see what big leaves...You see a lot of ants under the leaf helping the ant to get it to the...

Jennifer:  That's right. There's no worker that's more important than another worker. They divide up the labor, they communicate with each other, and they take over the role that needs to be done. The queen herself, again, is not a boss. She's not telling everybody what to do, right? She has her own role, which is to produce offspring for the colony, so she's part of the team also. The whole colony is the team and everybody's working towards getting done what needs to get done.

Jane:  You see some kind of failing basketball teams that center on this one player. That one player, they always have him out there but he gets exhausted near the end and they don't know what to do, because it's like, "Oh no. We don't have our star player out here."

Jennifer:  That's right. That's actually one of the strategies that basketball teams use is to go to a dominant player. It could be a good strategy if you figure that what the goal of the team is to move that ball into the basket. Why not continuously feed the ball to the person who's most likely to get it in the basket? But there's another team on the floor at the same time who's trying to prevent that guy from moving it to the basket.

So another strategy is actually to use all of your team members in a way that distributes the ball so that the defending team doesn't know where the ball's going to go. There's a measure for that. We call it entropy. We found that last year the teams that made it to the finals had the highest entropy of all the teams. The triangle offense is actually a triangle in the network where individuals move the ball back and forth around this circle of three individuals. The Lakers and the Celtics had more of these triangles than any other team, so they were the ones that were less predictable in their ball movement.

Dr. Biology:  And more successful.

Jennifer:  And more successful. Revamp of the Heat is a really interesting attempt to capture that triangle offense with multiple good players, but each player has to back off from their star status of the year before. LeBron James can't play like LeBron James this year. He has to back off.

Jane:  Kobe Bryant.

Jennifer:  Yeah, Kobe Bryant was very successful individually but when they got other team members that he started distributing the ball to, that's when that team took off.

Dr. Biology:  I guess the question is, are social insect scientists going to lend some insight into basketball, [laughter] or is it that the basketball coaches already have insight for the social insect scientists?

Jennifer:  I don't know, I think it's a two way street. I think that we can learn a lot from basketball, but who knows? Maybe, at least at the college level, if you want to teach your team to play like a team you might want to do some network dynamics and show them what it looks like.

Dr. Biology:  You really can break down team play based on these network rules or these network observations and predict success?

Jennifer:  Well, I'm not going to go so far as to say we can predict success. I'm not going to Vegas on this, [laughter] but I think there are some things to be learned about looking at your team and who is communicating with whom, who's being left out and what the dynamics are. Certainly if you're the defending team, you would like the information that the forward never passes to the center, so if the forward has the ball, you can take your man off the center.

Jane:  You also said in your lab, that when the defending team found out how the other team was working, like this player never passed to the outside player because he was always open, but he never passed it because he always passed it forward. They could take their man off of him like you just said and guard the man he was most likely to pass to.

Dr. Biology:  Amare you were talking about, right?

Jennifer:  Yeah, this was a couple of years ago and our first analyses were of the Suns. What we noticed in our network was that Amare was not good as passing the ball back except to Steve Nash. There were other players that were always open that he never shot to. At that same time he was complaining in the news that he was getting double and triple teamed all the time. His movement was always to the basket so there's no point in guarding the other guys because he's not going to pass the ball out to them. Somebody though, on the Suns, caught that independently of us, because he changed. This was January/February, he started to pass the ball a lot more, and actually his success rate went up quite a lot after that.

Jane:  When did you know you really wanted to become a scientist and go into this kind of study about the social insects?

Jennifer:  Well it's hard to pinpoint the day when I decided to become a scientist, but I have to say when I was a kid your age, even much younger than you, I was always out playing in the dirt. I was always picking things up and looking at them. I was trying to do little experiments about where I could grow this or grow that. I was collecting caterpillars and putting them in boxes and things like that. I was always outside.

My mom used to complain because I was always dirty. I have four sisters and they were always clean and they always dressed up, and I was always getting into something. So I sort of, I think I had that basic curiosity about the world and lack of good grooming perhaps, I don't know [laughter] that leads you into biology especially.

I thought when I was younger I wanted to be a librarian because I loved to read so much and you thought, "What if it would be a world of books and I can read all the time?" Then I realized that the librarian actually doesn't get to read that much. [laughter]

Jane:  Yeah, I realized that too. I used to want to be a librarian.

Jennifer:  Yeah, so when do you get to read about science? If you're a scientist. You get to explore and you get to play. I realized when I went to college that, "Hey you could do this for your entire life." It was amazing that you can actually play at exploring about what's going on and ask questions. I think that I probably just was already geared to be a scientist by the time I got to college.

Jane:  Do you have a favorite book?

Jennifer:  No, I don't have a favorite book. I have lots of favorite books.

Dr. Biology:  What are you reading right now?

Jennifer:  Oh, I'm reading George R.R. Martin's series, a fantasy series. [laughter] I'm reading "The Name of the Wind" which is another fantasy series. I just read, actually, "Unbroken" which is not a fantasy. It's a historical work about a guy who was a mile runner who was ready to break the world record in the mile, but then World War II came. He was actually in the Air Force and captured and was a prisoner of war. They talk about how things just got worse and worse and worse for him but he managed to persevere. That's just an amazing book also. So I read a lot of different things.

Jane:  I think my favorite book is "The Hunger Games" series, which is a post‑apocalyptic book.

Jennifer:  Yeah, I like post‑apocalyptic books. You think that's weird. Why would you like something that's that horrible? I think it's because in that context, you have to think outside the box, right? You have to think to survive, that's the idea behind those books, right?

Jane:  Yeah.

Jennifer:  That's something that is really interesting.

Jane:  It's kind of like telling you, "Hey, if you don't stop this you're going to destroy the world."

Jennifer:  That too, the message about what we do, I think, is really important for people to pay attention to. They don't usually like it in the form of news, but if you put in the form of a novel then people might listen.

Dr. Biology:  So as a biologist and a scientist, since you've been doing this for so long, one of the things we do to our guests is we take it all away. You don't get to be a scientist. You don't get to be a biologist. Just about everyone we know loves to be a teacher, so I always take that away. What would you be, what would you do, if you could do anything?

Jennifer:  If I were able to do anything?

Dr. Biology:  Right.

Jennifer:  One thing that's obvious that you should probably take away is I could write science fiction and fantasy books, which would be great to actually create those worlds.

Jane:  Yeah, I wanted to write a novel for a while but I just can't get the words on the paper.

Jennifer:  Yeah, it's a hard thing to do. It's hard to imagine and then actually create it as something that you can transfer to somebody else, so they'll understand what you're talking about.

Jane:  Even if books are really horrible, I kind of admire them for actually getting their words on the paper and actually publishing it.

Dr. Biology:  So one hint for the ad is to simply get a notebook, don't even think about writing a book, and start writing little snippets like...

Jane:  That's right, Rowling did. In fourth grade, we had to do a report on an author, and we had to go through her life. When she was little, she used to write little short stories about talking rabbits and mystical stuff and she would keep that all in a box.

Then she'd start writing down her ideas for books and she'd also keep that in her little shoebox. She finally decided she had a really great idea to write Harry Potter. She took all of her ideas out of that box and kind of...

Jennifer:  Oh, that's a great idea.

Dr. Biology:  It's a lot easier, too. I'm not writing a book, I'm just writing a short story. I'm writing... could be just a paragraph or a sentence, or sometimes, it's just, "Hey that's a really cool character that would be if I could use these qualities in some kind of character."

Jane:  Yeah.

Jennifer:  But writing is also a skill set you need for science. People think, "Oh, well, I'm a scientist, I don't need to write." No, most of what you do is writing. Because it's not enough to just go out and do an experiment. You actually have to tell the world what you've found. Writing's an important skill.

Jane:  Yeah. My fifth grade teacher used to say, if you want to be a scientist, you have to write a lot. She would make us write for all of our experiments, because we did a lot. She would make us write down all of our notes.

She'd make us write down the procedures and what to do next. Then some people complained, "Who would want to be a scientist if you have to do all this writing?" [laughter]

Jennifer:  Well, when you're a famous scientist, you should write her a letter and say thank you.

Jane:  Yes.

Dr. Biology:  You don't even have to be a famous one. Just say...

Jennifer:  Thank you.

Jane:  "Thank you."

We kind of took away all of your science and asked you, what would you do if you couldn't be a scientist? What if I wanted to be a scientist, what advice would you give?

Jennifer:  Wow. There are a lot of things you could do. One of the things though, I have to say is, you have to want to be a scientist. You have to love it. You have to love discovering things, love exploring the world.

Because although it sounds like fun the way I'm describing it, it's a lot of work. It's a day after day after day of little things that kind of get in the way, and you have to conquer that.

If you're starting in terms of skill sets, well we already talked about writing. Math and English, that's the way to go.

Jane:  Yes. When I talked to an oceanographer and she went on lots of cruises. That sounds like a lot of fun, like you're saying.

But really she just had to work. It probably was really fun, but it's probably a lot of work, too. Because you have to do lots of things. You have to take samples, you have to bring them back to the lab and everything, right?

Jennifer:  Yes. That reminds me of one of my projects where we went to Australia. The south coast and it was beautiful there. We got to see rain forests, and we got to see kangaroos and koalas, and what did we do most of the time?

Most of the time we were in a dark room with bees in observation nests. Walking around and around and around, and writing, "She's digging, she's guarding. She's digging, she's guarding." [laughs] You have to be prepared for some drudgery.

The other thing besides having, we talked about writing and math skills, those kinds of skills, I would just suggest that you think about learning in terms of asking questions, about why and what and where. I call it concept learning.

Not just memorizing, because science is not about memorizing a bunch of facts. Science is about discovering the way things work, learning new things and understanding how things work with each other.

The kids that are best at that are the kids that can look at something that the teacher is talking about, and not see just a list of things that they need to remember for the test, but actually ask questions about, well, "Why are you telling me that? How does that work? Why are we learning this this way? Because it's really interesting to me."

Those are the ones that are going to go on to keep asking those questions as they get older, and those are the ones that are going to make new discoveries.

Dr. Biology:  I can see a new challenge now. The next time you get an assignment from a teacher and they give you a list of five to ten questions due, you not only answer those questions, but you write two or three more and give them back to the teacher.

Jennifer:  Yes. I think the teacher should love it.

Dr. Biology:  Wouldn't that be great?

Jennifer:  Yes, it would.

Dr. Biology:  I love it. It's evil, and that's the fun part about it, right? Not only did I do your assignment, but guess what? I've got questions for you.

Jane:  Can you answer these for me?

Jennifer:  If you can go into an assignment and not just answer the questions, but look at them first and go, "Why did she or he ask me this question?" If you transfer that into college, you will do so much better, because that's really the way that you learn… by understanding, not just by memorizing.

Dr. Biology:  Dr. Fewell, we want to thank you for being on "Ask a Biologist."

Jennifer:  Well thank you for inviting me. It's been a lot of fun.

Dr. Biology:  Jane, I really appreciate you coming down and being on "Ask a Biologist." It's been, well, in my generation I would say, a blast.

Jane:  Thank you so much. It's been amazing. Dr. Fewell's just so smart, and I've loved talking to her.

Dr. Biology:  By the way, Jane, what was the most unusual thing, or something you didn't expect to see today?

Jane:  The fungus. I never knew that leaf‑cutter ants actually fed off of a special fungus before.

Dr. Biology:  Right. You mean you thought they were eating leaves, right?

Jane:  Yeah, I did.

Dr. Biology:  Yes, well that's what I would've thought too. They're carrying these leaves back, what would you be doing? You're going to be going ahead and eating them, and they're not. OK, well, and the next time you go out and you do any baking...?

Jane:  Yeah, [laughter] I'll probably bring sour dough starter.

Dr. Biology:  Well, Jennifer Fewell, we really appreciate you being on "Ask a Biologist." It's been a pleasure.

Jennifer:  And thank you. I'd like to especially thank Jane for asking such great questions. I'm looking forward to when you become a famous scientist.

Jane:  Thank you.

Dr. Biology:  Maybe we can just say right now you are a scientist.

Jennifer:  You can.

Dr. Biology:  You've been listening to "Ask a Biologist." My guest has been Jennifer Fewell, a professor of biology at Arizona State University School of Life Sciences.

My guest co‑host has been Jane Rector. Together, we've been learning about the amazing world of ants and some surprising links to the world of basketball.

The "Ask a Biologist" podcast is produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the Grass Roots Studio housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is a division of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Remember, even though our program is not broadcast live, you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website. The address is AskABiologist.ASU.EDU, or you can just Google the words Ask A Biologist. I'm Doctor Biology.

Transcription by CastingWords

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Ant Life Part 2

Audio editor: CJ Kazilek

Ant Life Part 1

Teamwork is part of life for ants. These social insects live in a society where group work is wired into each individual’s brain. Listen in as co-host Jane Rector and Dr. Biology learn about the world of ants from biologist Jennifer Fewell. Could leafcutter ants be one of the first animals to farm?

Content Info | Transcript


MP3 download | 14MB

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Topic Time
Intro 00:00
Cohost Jane Rector introduces herself 00:17
Introduction of Jennifer Fewell 01:11
When bitten by ants was the reaction an allergic reaction or a normal reaction? [harvester ants] 01:40
Need to be stung at least once before you become allergic. 02:44
Jennifer's first experience with a social insect. 03:29
How powerful is the toxin of an ant? [Dr. Biology] 03:55
Ant escapes and the effect on colonies. [leaf cutter ants] 04:55
The story of mass colony escapes. 06:23
Why would ants move their colony? 07:12
What is the white gooey looking stuff inside the colonies? 07:54
How big are ants brains - and ant brain anatomy. [distributed nerve systems] 09:04
Ant communication. 10:45
Do the ants know what work they are going to do when they become an adult? [ant roles - age-based division of labor] 12:01
Are all the ants in a colony females or males? 14:12
When do boy ants come into the colony and do they work? 15:15
Why do the queens chew their wings off? 17:01
Can a colony of leafcutters start without bringing some starter fungus? 17:30
How did fungus first get started? [Leaf cutter ants] 18:17
Is there only one queen who starts a colony? 19:06
Do ants have feelings for each other? 20:11
Can ants recognize each other? [experiment to test this] 21:22
Have scientists studied the difference in pheromones? 22:58
How do you start one of your laboratory ant colonies? 23:24
What happens if the queen loses the fungus if you bring her to the laboratory. [trans-funganation] 24:23
Is the fungus like baking sourdough bread starter? [Dr. Biology] 25:05
Does the fungus naturally hang from the top? 25:31
Not all ants can sting - correct - or do they bite? 26:19
Show break between part 1 and part 2. 27:23

Transcript - (PDF)

Dr. Biology:  This is "Ask a Biologist," a program about the living world, and I'm Dr. Biology. I'm here with one of my co‑hosts, Jane Rector. Before we get to our expert scientist, tell me. How did you get to "Ask A Biologist" and where are you from?

Jane Rector:  I'm from Gold Canyon, AZ. I am at Peralta Trail Elementary School. I entered a competition for "Ask a Biologist." I like reading books.

Dr. Biology:  You like reading books. Let me ask you this, are you really into science?

Jane:  Yeah.

Dr. Biology:  You are? Is there a particular kind of science?

Jane:  I really like chemistry a lot.

Dr. Biology:  Like chemistry? Well, the two of us get to talk with a really great and wonderful scientist. As a matter of fact, you can introduce her. Who do we have here today?

Jane:  We have Doctor Jennifer Fewell.

Dr. Biology:  We actually got to visit her laboratory, didn't we? What was the best part of that laboratory?

Jane:  I think seeing how the ants were building their colonies.

Dr. Biology:  Right. With no more delay, we're going to be talking with Dr. Jennifer Fewell. She is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. She does some really cool experiments with social insects, of which some of those social insects are ants. Welcome to the show.

Dr. Jennifer Fewell:  Thank you. Thank you for asking me.

Dr. Biology:  I know that my co‑host, she is so anxious to get started on this. I'm going to let you go ahead. Jane, what's the first question we wanted to talk about?

Jane:  I noticed that, when I was little, I got bit by a lot of red ants. I just swelled up immediately. Does that mean I'm allergic to it or is it just the venom?

Jennifer:  First of all, where were you when you got bitten by the ants?

Jane:  I was in an apartment. It was a gravel colony and I kind of sat on it.

Jennifer:  You sat on it? [laughs]

Dr. Biology:  How old were you?

Jane:  I was probably two.

Dr. Biology:  OK, all right. Well, we understand at two.

Jennifer:  Well, those sound like harvester ants to me. They're local ants. They're the red ones that build gravel nests. They're sort of medium‑sized. They're not the tiny, tiny ones that are also very painful.

The interesting thing about harvester ants is that they have really intense venom. When they sting you, it really, really hurts.

So it's hard to know whether or not you were actually having an allergic reaction, which is the body's immune system overreacting to something, or whether you just swelled up because that's actually what their venom is meant to do.

Jane:  Oh, okay.

Dr. Biology:  Maybe you're not allergic to that type of ant?

Jennifer:  Maybe not, it's hard to know. You have to get stung once before you're allergic, so you can't have an allergic reaction the first time you encounter the venom.

Jane:  Oh, really?

Jennifer:  Yeah, because your body has to learn that it's a foreign protein. Usually, you get stung and it's not an allergic reaction, but then you may have allergic reaction later. So if you got stung a lot, it's possible that you could be allergic to them now.

But probably what happened to you...you got a lot of stings, right? It's probably, basically, exactly what that venom was designed to do, which was to get you away from their nest as fast as possible.

Dr. Biology:  I think the moral of the story is, "Don't sit on any ant nests."

Jennifer:  Actually, you know what my first experience with a social insect was? When I was six, at a picnic and I took a bite into a cheese sandwich. I didn't know that a wasp had flown into my sandwich and I bit it in half and it stung me on the tongue.

Jane:  Oh, no!

Jennifer:  Yeah, I have this sort of vague memory of that happening, and then ending up in the doctor's office and them weighing me, and me thinking, "What has my weight got to the do with the fact that my tongue is swollen up?"

[laughter]

Dr. Biology:  How powerful is this toxin that the ants have?

Jennifer:  It's not the bite. It's the sting. The toxin in a harvester ant is incredibly strong. Ounce for ounce, it's more potent than cobra venom, but you get a lot less obviously from an ant than we do from a cobra.

Jane:  You said that ounce per ounce the venom is more potent than a cobra's? When they sting you, does the venom level go down? Can they only sting “x” amount of times before their venom runs out or do they reproduce the venom?

Jennifer:  They reproduce venom but, in the instant that they sting you, the first sting is going to deliver most of that. Then, if they sting you multiple times, you'll get a little bit more and a little bit more. Then, they have to produce it. It's a chemical that they have to make inside their bodies.

There is, I guess we can call it, a latency period. Something like that. But by that time you are already running away from the ant, screaming. It's not relevant at that point.

Jane:  I noticed in your lab that ants kind of got out of their little boxes. How does that affect the colony?

Jennifer:  Oh! We had some escapees from our colonies. We keep our colonies in these plastic containers. We are talking about leaf‑cutter ants here. They actually grow fungus to eat in the colony. So we have them in these little chambers, and then they are in boxes where they go and forage.

Then, we have those boxes in a bigger container that we have put a special substance around the side. So, it's like Teflon to stop them from getting out, but these ants are so good at climbing, and sometimes they get out.

Jane:  Yeah, I saw a few of them on top of the boxes, crawling upside down.

Jennifer:  Yeah, they can actually do that. They can actually grab on to...you think the Plexiglas that they're in is smooth, but it's rough. They can actually grab on to that with their...

Jane:  Like tree frogs?

Jennifer:  Yes like tree frogs or geckos. They all have special ways to climb up and down things, which are really interesting. The colonies have a lot of workers in them. Them losing a few workers isn't going to change things very much. They have a lot of, what we call, redundancy.

There are lots of workers to do the chores that need to be done, so we don't worry about a couple of them escaping. We do try to keep them as contained as possible though, because people get a little worried when they see ants going up and down the hall.

Dr. Biology:  A few escaping is not a big deal. Any mass escapes ever?

Jennifer:  Well yes! We have had a couple of times when the entire colony has decided to get up and leave its current beautiful Plexiglas abode and find new digs. We had once an entire colony of workers going down the hall, carrying their brood with them, looking for a new home, which was a little [laughter] bit of a problem to other people working in the building.

But they are native ants. They're native to Arizona, so them relocating isn't actually a big deal. We did gather them up though and tried to convince them that really the lab was the best place for them.

Dr. Biology:  If you could actually get inside the head of an ant, I always wonder what they would be thinking, as they are wandering down these giant corridors, trying to find the new home.

Jane:  Oh my God! What is this purple tile?

Jennifer:  Yeah! More likely, "Follow the trail. Follow the trail."

[laughter]

Dr. Biology:  Yeah, exactly. What are they looking for? How come they would give up those wonderful Plexiglas homes?

Jennifer:  That's a good question. When you try and bring something in to the lab, and you want its environment to be the same as out in nature, you try to the best of your ability to recapture that.

But there is nothing that you can do really with Plexiglas containers that is going to capture a giant hole in the ground, underneath a Palo Verde tree, in the shade in the desert.

I mean, that's what they've evolved to live in and that's probably what they're looking for. Our colonies do really well. They get pretty large, but we don't actually get them as large as what you'd find if you'd find if you dug up under a Palo Verde tree.

Jane:  Yeah. I saw in some of the colonies they have tons of that kind of white gooey‑looking stuff. What is that?

Jennifer:  The fungus?

Jane:  Yeah.

Jennifer:  Yeah, that's their food, which is kind of interesting. They're leaf‑cutter ants. Actually, Arizona has the northern‑most species of leaf‑cutter ants. The ones that you're used to thinking about in the tropics with the big leaves they're carrying over their heads. This species is actually related to that, but they live in the desert.

All of these species have in common that their main food source is not actually the leaves that they're carrying back, but a fungus that they grow that is specialized just to survive in those colonies.

What they do is, they bring the plant material back, and they chew it up. Plant materials, like leaves, are very hard to digest. Ants are very good at digesting it, but fungus is really good at digesting that kind of thing. The ants chew up the leaves. They apply it to the fungus. The fungus digests it. It eats it, and then the ants eat the fungus.

They'll take little pieces of the fungus, always tending it, keeping clean, giving it what it needs, and then it's their main food source. They actually farm. They farm for fungus.

Jane:  Back to the head, how big are ants' brains?

Jennifer:  How big are ants' brains? What a question! I don't know the answer actually. I have been thinking about this, because ants are a lot of different sizes right? You have tiny, tiny ants, and then you have really huge ants. They can be two orders of magnitude, different in size.

You can have some ants that are 100 times bigger than other ants. Actual brain size is going to vary a lot. Then, on top of that, did you know that the entire brain of an ant isn't actually in the head? Most insects have, what we call, more distributed nervous systems, so they have bundles of nerves as you go down each of the legs and then into the abdomen.

All of their processing isn't as focused in the brain as it is in humans, which is why you can actually cut the head off of a cockroach. Not that I am recommending it as a home experiment, but it will still survive and it will still be able to move around. Ants are the same way.

Jane:  That's...eww.

Dr. Biology:  So the brain is distributed from what we consider the typical location of the brain, all the way down to where?

Jennifer:  All the way down to the end of the abdomen. They have bundles that we call ganglier that are concentrated in different locations.

You have three different locations in the thorax, and as it goes into the abdomen, that are areas of more nerves that are responsible for them moving and responding, which is one reason why they can move away from something real quickly, and how they coordinate their three sets of legs.

Jane:  I notice that when the ants met each other in those little tubes connecting your makeshift little colony chambers...

Jennifer:  Makeshift! [laughter] I prefer a laboratory.

[laughter]

Jane:  ...that they kind of felt with their little feelers each other. What are they doing?

Jennifer:  Well, ants touch each other to communicate. They get a lot of their information from touch.

When they touch, it's almost like they're smelling because they have chemical sensors on their antennae and on their front legs. So they can actually pick up odors from the ground, from the environment or from each other. They send a lot of information to each other.

One of the things as they are coming into and out of different areas of the colony, one of the pieces of information they need to give is "I belong here," because ants defend their colony from other ants that might want to invade or foreign insects.

They are touching each other partly to see whether they smell like they should. They also have a lot of information on their bodies like, "What task am I doing? Do I need you to do something for me?"

They are also very clean. They groom each other a lot to remove dirt, debris and pathogens, bacteria, fungi and things like that from their bodies.

Jane:  Do the ants, when they come out of their pupa stage…  Do ants know exactly what work they are doing or do the other ants have to tell them?

Jennifer:  That is a really good question because, when people do work, it is often because someone tells you to do this or tells you to do that. So we have this kind of – can we call it hierarchy where there is a boss who basically tells other people what to do? Ants don't really have that same kind of organization.

People thinks that the queen is the boss of the colony but she's not. She is actually a specialist. Her specialty is to make babies, to make new brood for the colony. She is not telling the different ants what to do. Instead, they have what we call a distributive system where each of the ant samples what is going around her and makes a decision on what task needs to be performed.

She does it in a way that is kind of interesting because it is also dependent on what she is like internally. If she is just emerged, then she is more likely to perform tasks that are close to the area where she emerged, including cleaning up the area or she will eventually move to feeding other ants or feeding the brood, grooming, maybe grooming the queen.

Then as she gets a little older she is more likely to move towards the entrance of the colony. She will do things like guarding, trash removal. Then, the oldest ants forage. They go out and collect the resources.

We call that age-based division of labor. Different individuals, at different ages, tend to perform different tasks.

That is not the whole picture; because not everybody does task one at age one and task two at age two. They vary depending on what they like to do. Like people, you prefer to do some things over others.

Jane:  Reading over cleaning my room.

Jennifer:  Reading over cleaning your room. Right. That would be good. If you were told to clean up, you might have a preference of what thing you want to clean up. Would you rather do the bathroom or the dishes, or the carpet?

Jane:  Yeah, I like doing the bathroom. I don't know why.

Jennifer:  That is good news.

Jane:  You said she when you are talking about the ants and their work. Are all the ants in the colony female or are there males, because in "Bug's Life" all the boy ants were schlepping the food on their back to the big pile and there were no women ants, except a nursery?

Jennifer:  Yes, that is wrong. That part of "Bug's Life" bugged me that’s for sure.

One of the central facts about social insects is that all of the workers in the colony are female, all the hymenoptera‑‑the ants, the bees and the wasps. If you are look at a worker, you are looking at a girl. You are not looking at a boy. So I am not sure why "Bug's Life" has to all the boys doing "boys' tasks" and all the girls doing "girls' tasks."

Jane:  Like nurseries.

Jennifer:  Like nurseries versus carrying something. Even the soldier ants with giant jaws, they are girls. They are all girls.

Jane:  They are all girls. Do you hear that?

When do the boys actually come into the colony and where do they work? Or do they work?

Jennifer:  They come in at certain times of year and they do not work. The colony is interesting because all the workers that you see are sterile. They don't reproduce. They are there to help the colony. There is only one reproducing individual in the colony and that is the queen.

She mated before she became the queen of the colony. There had to be males involved, because she mated with males. So what happens in a typical harvester ant colony or a leaf cutter ant colony is, once a year, the colony instead of producing workers will switch to producing reproductives.

New queens that are going to leave and form their own colonies and males that are going to mate with the queens. These ants are different from the worker ants because they are reared to be larger and they have wings. Have you seen ants with wings?

Jane:  Yeah, like right after rain.

Jennifer:  Yes, right after rain. That is really good because, in the desert, they produce them so that they will leave right after the rain so that the queen can dig new nests in an area where there are lots of resources and it is easier to dig.

The males, their only job is to sit in the colony until it rains. Then, they go out with the reproductive females and they mate in a big mating swarm that is called a lek. Then, the females drop to the ground. They actually chew their wings off. They dig a hole and they start a new nest and the males die.

Jane:  So not all the male flying bugs are male.

Jennifer:  Not all the winged flying bugs are males? That is right. The reproductive females have wings as well as the males. They fly away from the natal nest, the nest they were born in. Workers never have wings. That is a big difference between a queen and a worker.

Jane:  Why do the queens chew their wings off?

Jennifer:  The queens chew their wings off because what they are going to do now is dig a hole in the ground, make a nest and they are going to stay in that nest for the rest of their life. They are not going to use their wings again.

They are not going to fly. The wings are kind of useless. Plus they get in the way when you are trying to dig a nest. They are going to get broken. They are going to get frayed.

They chew them off right at the buds. They use the stored resources to produce babies instead of fly.

Jane:  In the lab, you said that the females took a piece of fungus with them to start a new colony. Could they start a colony without that fungus? Could the fungus grow?

Jennifer:  No. They cannot. This fungus is specialized for these ants. We have never found it in the natural world, outside these colonies. So if a queen flies away, digs a nest and doesn't have her fungal starter, then she is not going to have any food to live on and she is not going to have any food to feed the brood.

She will starve and that colony will die. Each of the queens takes a tiny little piece of that fungus from their natal colony with them. She carries it through the mating swarm and she deposits it after she makes a nest.

Jane:  If the fungus does not grow anywhere, then how did it...?

Dr. Biology:  Where did it start, right?

Jennifer:  Excellent question, thinking back. Not all of the types of fungus that you see in leaf cutter ants are this specialized. It is clear that way, way back a relationship had started between some ant and fungus, where the fungus was available in the natural world but did well in ant colonies and the ants started to feed it.

Then, because that relationship worked so well, they became very locked onto each other so that the genetic diversity present in the fungus decreased and decreased until it was only able to survive in the context of the ant colony.

Jane:  Ant colonies.

Jennifer:  Yeah.

Dr. Biology:  Now, since is it so important that this fungus be carried to the new colony, is it only one queen that goes? Because boy, it seems like you could have a real problem.

Jennifer:  Yeah, and you probably noticed that we have more than one queen in some of our colonies. Yes. It is a dangerous time of life for a queen to start a colony with just this little piece of fungus. In our species of leaf cutter ants, Acromyrmex, we find that there are often multiple queens in the colony.

They start their nests together in groups of usually around three or four individuals. Our experiments have shown that this is sort of a safety mechanism for them, hedging their bets. If they lose one piece of fungus, they're OK. If they lose two pieces of fungus, they're OK. The third piece of fungus is still there.

So if you figure that, maybe, half the time, the fungus is lost, then, if you have three or four individuals in there, you have a good shot at starting a colony and getting your fungus big enough so the workers can take care of it.

Jane:  On that line, when the queens help each other, do they become friends? Do any ants actually have feelings for each other?

Jennifer:  I would not say that ants have feelings for each other the way we have feelings for each other.

The queens tolerate each other, which is actually in itself, a big deal in the insect world. To have two, unrelated‑‑because they're not sisters‑‑unrelated individuals, living together and cooperating with each other is a very interesting thing to see. The workers don't really recognize each other in the same way we do.

It's different than other species. For example, if you looked at a pod of dolphins or whales and you looked at who was next to whom while they were swimming, you'd find that individuals like to hang out with each other. That you actually have what look like friendships. We call them associations.

Jane:  Like the mother whale and the baby whale?

Jennifer:  Yeah, not even the mother whale and the baby whale, just two unrelated females that like to swim with each other. That kind of thing. We don't see that in ant colonies. We've looked at them very carefully and they don't associate with each other outside of the realm of their doing their jobs.

Dr. Biology:  But they can recognize each other?

Jennifer:  They can recognize each other. There are two different levels that they can recognize each other at. One we already mentioned was that they can recognize that that other ant belongs in that colony.

Jane:  By the feelers.

Jennifer:  They smell like they should be there. There's some evidence that they can recognize each other as individuals. We did an experiment a long time ago where we took ants that were foragers. This was a different species of ant, Paraponera, the giant tropical ant.

Jane:  Oh, yeah.

Jennifer:  It's a cool ant. They like to collect nectar.

What we did is we pinned leaves to a tree, in two different places, and we put droplets of sugar water on them. Then, simultaneously, we let two foragers find the sugar water. They lay pheromone trails that the ants follow to get to resources.

We let them lay their pheromone trails, and that's a chemical trail, down the trunk of the tree into the nest. We took one away right before she went into the nest. The other one went in and she excited and recruited the ants in the colony to come out and get the resource and, as she left, we took that one away.

Now you have two pheromone trails, right? To two different leaves with nectar. Which one did they choose?

Dr. Biology:  The one that went inside?

Jennifer:  The one that went inside, that's right! They could actually recognize the individual trail of the one that came in and told them about it.

Jane:  There is differences in the pheromone trail of the ant?

Jennifer:  Yeah, so that told us that ants actually lay trails with individual signatures or that they're capable of doing it.

Jane:  Have you ever studied the pheromone trail of different ants to see what is different in it?

Jennifer:  No, I haven't personally, but we have a lot of faculty here who that do that kind of thing.

Bert Hölldobler, who is very well known for his work on the ants, is a specialist actually on ant pheromonal chemical signals. He wrote a really big book called "The Ants" with E.O. Wilson that I recommend.

Dr. Biology:  Actually, he was one of the early guests on our show. If someone likes to follow "Ask a Biologist," and didn't go to our earlier shows, he's the third or fourth show.

Jane:  I was just thinking, how do you start one of your laboratory ant colonies?

Jennifer:  Well, we have two different species that we grow colonies of, the one is the leaf‑cutter ants and the other is the harvester ants, the same ants that stung you. I'm sorry.

But the way we do it is we go out into the field when new queens emerge from their nests, after they mate, we collect them and we bring them back into the lab and we actually start all of our colonies from individual queens.

They grow from just a queen, who's laying eggs, to a few workers, to a few dozen workers, to hundreds of workers and we actually like to track the progress of the colonies.

We ask, "How do they grow? How does the organization of the colony, how does their division of labor and what they do change as they get larger?"

Jane:  If the queen loses the fungus when you take her to your laboratories, do you take a piece of the fungus from the colonies that are doing really well or do you just let her die?

Jennifer:  Let her die? No, we don't let her die. We try not to. We actually take a piece of fungus from another colony. It sounds easy, but it's a delicate operation because this is a living organism that's growing in other colonies.

We have to pluck it out carefully, and we put into her nest and she tends it. Then, she has to take care of it so it will survive. It's a very delicate operation. We call it "transfungination."

Dr. Biology:  [laughs] This fungus, it's sort of like baking sourdough bread, is it?

Jennifer:  Yes, yeah.

Dr. Biology:  Is that when you have to have a starter?

Jennifer:  Yeah! That's a really good analogy. It's like a sourdough starter. You know that across the prairie, people carry this sourdough starter to make bread and they gave it to their kids when they grew up and they gave it to neighbors when they lost theirs. This is the same kind of thing. That's how valuable it is.

Jane:  In one of your little soda bottle colonies, I noticed its fungus kind of hanging off the top of the soda bottle. Does it actually stick there or does the queen ant go up there?

Jennifer:  Isn't it funny how it actually likes to hang down from the top. We think of it maybe sitting on the ground in the dirt, but it doesn't. They clear a space in their colonies, and they glue it up there, and it grows down, a little bit like honeybees when they make comb, right? They start the comb at the top and it hangs down in space.

Dr. Biology:  There's one other thing the advice is, if I didn't say it before, I am saying it now, we are not going to have you going and sitting on any anthills right?

Jane:  No, thank you.

Dr. Biology:  No anthills. We are not going to test the theory whether you actually are now allergic to an ant sting or not?

To clear this up, not all ants can sting right?

Jennifer:  That's right! You can divide ants into ants that sting and ants that don't sting.

Jane:  I always thought that ants bite. I never knew that they stung.

Jennifer:  Yeah! Everybody says that. I don't know why they think that ants bite. Well, they do bite. They grab you so that they can rotate their abdomen and stick their stinger in.

Jane:  Oh, OK.

Dr. Biology:  We actually have a real nice article on "Ask a Biologist" with the anatomy of ants. There are two types, and we have the ones with the sting and one without, just a stereotypical kind of an ant.

Jane:  How do the ants without stingers protect their...

Jennifer:  They can spray formic acid.

Jane:  Ow.

Dr. Biology:  Yeah, I'd say ow. [laughs]

[laughter]

Jennifer:  But it's not as harsh as the sting.

Dr. Biology:  Sounds like may be not as deadly as the toxin...

Jennifer:  Yeah.

Dr. Biology:  ...yeah. That seems like that would do fast work on any ants that were trying to get in.

Jane:  Yeah.

Dr. Biology:  They can keep stinging, right? It's not like a bee...

Jennifer:  Yes, they can keep stinging.

Dr. Biology:  With that I'm looking at the time. Let's take a short break here.

You've been listening to "Ask a Biologist." My guest has been Jennifer Fewell, Professor of Biology at Arizona State University, School of Life Sciences. My guest cohost has been Jane Rector.

Together, we've been learning about the amazing world of ants. In our next half of the show, we're talking more about ants and I hope we'll also find out more about the link between ants and the fast pace game of basketball.

Now, what could that be?

The "Ask‑a‑Biologist" podcast is produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the Grassroots Studio, housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is a division of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Remember, even though our program is not broadcast live you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website. The address is askabiologist.asu.edu or you can just Google the words "Ask A Biologist." I'm Dr. Biology.

Transcription by CastingWords

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