Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Isolation and the Lonely Ants Club

carpenter antExcessive tinder is a major contributor to forest fires, but a shortage of Tinder can lead to an early death. For social animals like canines, deer, dolphins, elephants, primates such as bonobos and humans, and even bees and ants, contact with others is as essential to well-being as food and water.

A 2015 study done at Brigham Young University which garnered much news coverage in 2017 and early this year found that loneliness may be a greater health risk than smoking and obesity combined.

In a December 2017 New York Times article, Dr. Dhruv Khullar of the Weill Cornell Medical School in NY City tells author Jane Brody there is good evidence that loneliness and social isolation cause “…disrupted sleep, abnormal immune responses, and accelerated cognitive decline.” Dr. Khullar calls the untimely physical and mental deterioration due to loneliness “a growing epidemic.”

Brody points out that not everyone responds equally to isolation, with a small percentage of people preferring more solitude. And on the flip side, one can be surrounded by people and still feel isolated if they are not able to create emotionally fulfilling relationships. Brody refers to studies showing that although isolation is a real issue for older people, young adults report the greatest sense of distress owing to social isolation. This decreases toward middle age, and climbs again in very old age.

While recent research has strengthened the notion that isolation causes ill health, the idea is not new. People have long noted the correlation between loneliness, and illness and early death. Author Sadie F. Dingfelder, writing in the American Psychiatric Association Journal in November 2006, bluntly states “Loneliness kills, according to research dating back to the 1970s.” Dingfelder goes on to cite animal studies that showed a lowered immune response in both female and male rats isolated from their peers. An interesting side note is that the same research found female rats were more resilient than males when faced with an acute stress event, something also seen in humans.

Long-term isolation is especially harmful. Amnesty International states that “…the practice of holding prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement… is in violation of international law.” Figures on length of isolation are not well known, but in one Colorado prison, the average was found to be 8.2 years in solitary. Of the estimated 75,000 US prisoners now in solitary confinement, Amnesty spokesperson Erika Guevara-Rosas said “You cannot overestimate the devastating impact long periods of solitary confinement can have on the mental and physical well-being of a prisoner.”

Obviously, we are not the only social animal that suffers when separated from others. The renowned animal researcher Dr. Temple Grandin contends that “All domestic animals need companionship. It is as much a core requirement as food and water.” It is believed that for many species, evolution selected for social behaviors like grouping, altruism, fairness, and reciprocity. “Survival of the fittest” means living long enough to reproduce, not physical strength (hey, look who survived Hunger Games).

Risking your hide to defend the group benefits you, too. Sharing food within a kinship group increases the chances they’ll return the favor when it’s you who strikes out at the fishing hole or hunting ground. As an example of the need for socialization, when dogs do not get adequate social bonding and companionship they become distressed. Signs of isolation stress in dogs include being destructive, refusing to eat, and prolonged vocalizing, pacing, chewing or licking.

Cattle need companionship as well. A 1997 study by Boissy and Le Neindre published in the journal Physiology & Behavior demonstrated that when isolated, a cow responds with increased heart rate and blood cortisol levels, and begins to struggle and vocalize. But in the presence of other cattle, a previously isolated cow calms, with behavior and blood markers for stress returning to normal.

Writing for the website in February 2015, Mark Bekoff reviews a study of small social animals — ants to be exact — published in the journal Behavioural Ecology & Sociobiology. Researchers Akiko Koto, Danielle Mersch, Brian Hollis, & Laurent Keller concluded that “Social isolation causes mortality by disrupting energy homeostasis in ants,” or in English, lonely ants die young. In fact, ants allowed to socialize lived more than ten times longer than isolated ants, and researchers do not know exactly why. Isolated ants tend to pace around more, and do not digest food well. One hypothesis is that social interactions release chemicals related to ants’ digestion.

And if you think ants are too small to get lonely, studies suggest that even cells prefer company, with isolated ones petering out sooner than cells grouped together. I have no idea how to befriend random cells, but owners of pets might consider the meaning of the word, and pet their dogs, cats, fish, squid, and other domestic animals more often.

The larger point is that we need to reach out more, both for our own health and that of our family, friends and neighbors. There is no substitute for face-to-face visits, but contact through social media in between visits is great too. Even “Tinder” might help prevent isolation. If your ant comes up, though, swipe left.

Photo of Carpenter Ant, courtesy Muhammad Mahdi Karim.

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Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.

You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

4 Responses

  1. James Marco says:

    People are the same as ants? Hmmmm….

  2. Bread has a crust. Earth has a crust. Therefore, bread is the same as our planet. Ants get lonely. People get lonely. Therefore, they are the same. Logic is just so awesome!

  3. Paul says:

    One definition of lonely is “Isolated”. I would probably just use that word (which the author does also) since some folks often think of one of the other definitions of lonely – which is “sad because one has no friends or company”. I don’t think there is any way to know if an ant feels this emotion. Given their “neurological” make up I would hypothesize they are not complex enough to have any emotions. They simply negatively or positively react to what doesn’t or does work for their survival.

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