Anyone who’s ever dropped an ice cream cone knows that ants love sugar. But for ants that live on city streets and pavements, junk food may be a matter of survival.

“The ants that live alongside us in our cities also seem to be those same species that can eat the same food that we do, and do so the most,” Clint Penick, a post-doctoral fellow at North Carolina State University, told The Guardian last week. Penick is lead author of a new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which finds that ants living on pavements and in traffic islands have a particular appetite for junk food and meat—more so than ants living in a park or on a lawn.

Hercules. Image: Richard King / Flickr

The researchers gathered more than 20 species of ants living on sidewalks, medians, and parks in Manhattan, and analyzed them for a carbon 13, an isotope that can indicates what sorts of foods you’re eating. Foods containing corn or sugar cane (basically, all processed foods) and meats tend to be enriched in carbon 13. Ants living on pavements, the researchers found, had higher carbon 13 levels than their park-bound counterparts. The ant with the highest carbon 13 levels was Tetramorium sp. E, which, the researchers say, is ubiquitous on streets and sidewalks in cities around the world.

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Future research will determine whether street ants have a preference for human food even when their natural food sources are available. Now that we’ve built an entirely new type of ecosystem, we get to see whether nature is adapting in step. [The Guardian]

Read the scientific paper at the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Top image via Rowan Peter / Flickr

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