Research Matters

Research Matters

Ancient Ant Nests

Researchers positively identify bedeviling shapes in High Plains rock.

Episode #96

2 minutes (3.7 MB) | Download mp3


Researchers positively identify bedeviling shapes in High Plains rock. From the University of Kansas, this is Research Matters. I’m Brendan Lynch.

Pancake-shaped rocks jutting from outcrops around the High Plains have perplexed scientists. Some thought the shapes — found in rock called the Ogallala Formation — could be prehistoric plants or even fossilized dung piles. Now, a research team from KU and Fort Hays State University has solved the mystery. The odd shapes are fossil nests built by ants 10-15 million years ago. Brian Platt, KU doctoral student in geology, was part of the effort.

Platt: A lot of them are pretty well excavated naturally though erosion. We’d brush them off and dig at them a little deeper. But it’s impossible to extract an entire nest because they are so delicate. The vertical tubes are only up to a centimeter in diameter. But we were able to break off some of the pieces, and take them back here to the survey and take a closer look at them.

Relying on plaster and metal casts of underground networks made by present-day ants, the researchers were able to verify that ancient ants had created the High Plains structures.

Platt: The modern nests have pancake-shaped chambers and vertical tubes that connect them. When you look at the fossil structures in Scott County — with the individual pancake pieces and overall structure — they look exactly like the modern ant nests. We were pretty excited when we saw them, and realized we were the first to recognize that these are fossil ant nests and not algal structures or dung patties or anything like that.”

Ancient and modern ant nests provide important information on hidden biodiversity, soil moisture and climate conditions, according to Platt.

Platt: Ants are by far the most common insects in modern ecosystems. Their nests can dramatically alter the soil structure by building extensive galleries, tunnels and networks that aerate the soil and help with water infiltration. Combined studies on modern and fossil ant nests will shed more light on those influences that ants have on the soil.

For more on ancient ant burrows, log on to Research Matters dot KU dot EDU. For the University of Kansas, I’m Brendan Lynch.

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