Left: some grumpy old men. Right: Pheidole dentata, a native of the southeastern U.S. The ant isn't immortal, but doesn't seem to age.

Forever young: ants don’t seem to age

Most people don’t have that much of an issue with dying, like they do with being freaking old. Being old is a drag. You gain weight, the skin gets wrinkled, the mind and body weakens — and it all gets gradually worse until you expire. Ants don’t seem to share this human tragedy. By all accounts these particular ants don’t seem to age and die in youthful bodies.

Left: some grumpy old men. Right: Pheidole dentata, a native of the southeastern U.S. The ant isn't immortal, but doesn't seem to age.

Left: some grumpy old men. Right: Pheidole dentata, a native of the southeastern U.S. The ant isn’t immortal, but doesn’t seem to age.

This is according to researchers at Boston University who followed Pheidole dentata worker ants in a lab environment. These ants live to grow 140-days old, and the team suspected that these should show similar signs of aging like most organisms seeing how they seem to develop repertoires and behavior with age. “We expected that there would be a normal curve for these kinds of functions — they’d improve, they’d peak and then they’d decline,” James Traniello said, one of the study’s authors.

The researchers carefully looked for signs of aging from dead cells in the brain, to lower dopamine levels to declining performance in daily tasks. None of it was observed. It seems like these ants performed with flying colours until they die, like a bright flame that’s suddenly extinguished when the job is done. Moreover, the ants seemed to get better and better at anty-stuff (carrying food, finding resources) and became more active with each passing day in their lives.

Such displays are rare in the animal kingdom. Another notable examples includes naked mole rats which are arguably more impressive. These live for up to 30 years and stay spry for most of this time.

For now, scientists don’t know why these ants don’t seem to age, but being extremely social (part of the hive) might have something to do with it, they report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. For sure, follow-up studies will be made on other ant species.

“Maybe the social component could be important,” says says Ysabel Giraldo, who studied the ants for her doctoral thesis at Boston University. “This could be a really exciting system to understand the neurobiology of aging.”

This might seem like an epiphany. Maybe there’s a way to transmute ants’ secret fountain of youth to humans. That would certainly make a lot of people happy, but it would likely never work. Ants are alien compared to humans. For one ants don’t reproduce and use a lot less oxygen. Given how complex the human organism is, it would never be feasible to mimic the ant’s way of life.

Don’t look so dull. Being human has its perks. Guess we’ll just have to come to terms with old age, until someone finds the Holy Grail.

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