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City Ants and Foxes Eat an American Diet Too

They have more heavy carbon atoms in their bodies, which come from corn and sugarcane.
(Photo: Alex Ford/Flickr)

(Photo: Alex Ford/Flickr)

Ever toss a French fry out the window while you're driving? If so, you've been feeding urban ants. (Not that that means you shouldn't stop littering.) You're not alone; the average city-dweller throws away 165 pounds of food per year. And, according to a new study, all your discarded food has definitely made its way to the ants.

New York City ants that live in sidewalks and traffic medians eat more human-like diets than do Big Apple ants living in parks, according to the study, which was published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. So the American diet has not only affected humans all around the world, but also city-dwelling wildlife. You have to admire these creatures' adaptability. They may have evolved to eat fruit, seeds, and other insects, but they seem to be able to make do with Fritos and Sour Patch Kids.

Biologists from North Carolina State University and the State University of New Jersey conducted the study by gathering ants from the three environments, freezing them, baking them, and analyzing the chemical compositions of their bodies. The major difference between sidewalk and traffic-median ants and their park counterparts was that the former's bodies had about three percent more heavy carbon atoms, compared to light carbon atoms. Heavy carbon atoms are more abundant in corn, sugarcane, and grass, while light carbon atoms are more abundant in most other plants. Grass is not very common in sidewalks and traffic medians, so the researchers concluded that sidewalk and traffic-median ants must be eating more corn and sugar than their park-dwelling cousins.

The American diet has not only affected humans all around the world, but also city-dwelling wildlife.

It's not just the ants. One recent study found that kit foxes living in cities have more heavy carbon in their bodies than kit foxes in the countryside. Meanwhile, a 2002 study found Americans have more heavy carbon in their bodies than Europeans, who eat less corn.

What does this mean for the non-humans' health? While it's well known the American diet is associated with higher rates of diabetes and heart disease in people, having access to these foods sometimes may not be so bad for certain wildlife. Female kit foxes have more pups in the city than they do in the country, and populations of Tetramorium ants, or "pavement ants," are higher in traffic medians than in parks, suggesting these critters are thriving on their new urban diets.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.