The findings offer insight into why certain ants are thriving in urban environments. The findings stem from a study that tested isotope levels in New York City ants to determine the makeup of their diet.

"We wanted to learn more about why some ant species are able to live alongside us, on sidewalks or in buildings, while other species stay on the outskirts of human development," said lead author Clint Penick from North Carolina State University.

The researchers collected more than 100 ant samples, representing 21 species, at dozens of sites on sidewalks, street medians and parks in Manhattan. "Human foods clearly make up a significant portion of the diet in urban species," he said.  

The ant samples were then analysed to determine the isotope content of their bodies. Animals, including humans, incorporate the carbon in their food into their bodies.

One type of carbon, called carbon-13, is associated with grasses, such as corn and sugarcane. Because corn and refined sugar are present in everything from hamburgers to processed foods, ants that eat a lot of human food have higher levels of carbon-13 than ants that avoid human food.

The researchers found that the most common ant species on sidewalks, the pavement ant (Tetramorium Sp. E), had the highest levels of carbon-13.

"These are the ants eating our garbage, and this may explain why pavement ants are able to achieve such large populations in cities," the researcher explained.


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