“Simple” Biomechanical Model for Ants Reveals How Correlated Evolution among Body Segments Minimizes Variation in Center of Mass as Heads Get Larger

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Synopsis The field of comparative biomechanics strives to understand the diversity of the biological world through the lens of physics. To accomplish this, researchers apply a variety of modeling approaches to explore the evolution of form and function ranging from basic lever models to intricate computer simulations. While advances in technology have allowed for increasing model complexity, insight can still be gained through the use of low-parameter “simple” models. All models, regardless of complexity, are simplifications of reality and must make assumptions; “simple” models just make more assumptions than complex ones. However, “simple” models have several advantages. They allow individual parameters to be isolated and tested systematically, can be made applicable to a wide range of organisms and make good starting points for comparative studies, allowing for complexity to be added as needed. To illustrate these ideas, we perform a case study on body form and center of mass stability in ants. Ants show a wide diversity of body forms, particularly in terms of the relative size of the head, petiole(s), and gaster (the latter two make-up the segments of the abdomen not fused to thorax in hymenopterans). We use a “simple” model to explore whether balance issues pertaining to the center of mass influence patterns of segment expansion across major ant clades. Results from phylogenetic comparative methods imply that the location of the center of mass in an ant’s body is under stabilizing selection, constraining the center of mass to the middle segment (thorax) over the legs. This is potentially maintained by correlated rates of evolution between the head and gaster on either end. While these patterns arise from a model that makes several assumptions/simplifications relating to shape and materials, they still offer intriguing insights into the body plan of ants across ~68% of their diversity. The results from our case study illustrate how “simple,” low-parameter models both highlight fundamental biomechanical trends and aid in crystalizing specific questions and hypotheses for more complex models to address.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1193-1207
Number of pages15
JournalIntegrative and comparative biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Plant Science


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