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Red wood ant mound. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Some species of red wood ants, found in Europe and North America, build 7-foot mounds in the forests. A few years ago, a husband-and-wife team of geologists, Gabriele and Martin Berberich, noticed the mounds tend to be found near active tectonic faults. They struggled to publish that observation. "It sounds crazy, right? — geology and ants interacting?" says their collaborator Israel del Toro, an entomologist at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

But in a study published last week, they outlined an experiment modeled on medicine's double-blind test to determine whether there is an association between the geology of a place and the occurrence of ants there. They found there is.

"These things that are really conspicuous in nature often get overlooked. But when we look, something cool pops up," says Del Toro.

How they did it: Del Toro and his colleague mapped the location of nests in two forested areas in Denmark without knowing the geology or the hypothesis. The Berberichs meanwhile compiled data about the tectonic faults in the area, not knowing what Del Toro found.

When they put the two datasets together, they found the ants' nests "were eight times more likely to be found within 60 m of known tectonic faults than were random points in the same region but without nests."

What's next: Correlation, of course, doesn't imply causation. The researchers want to know whether there is any underlying biology. One idea: the ants could be using warm gas released from microfaults that can't be seen with the eye as chimneys to stay active during the cold winters. They plan to now map the microfaults in the area and determine their temperature.

Go deeper

9 hours ago - Health

Food banks feel the strain without holiday volunteers

People wait in line at Food Bank Community Kitchen on Nov. 25 in New York City. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank For New York City

America's food banks are sounding the alarm during this unprecedented holiday season.

The big picture: Soup kitchens and charities, usually brimming with holiday volunteers, are getting far less help.

11 hours ago - Health

AstraZeneca CEO: "We need to do an additional study" on COVID vaccine

Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said on Thursday the company is likely to start a new global trial to measure how effective its coronavirus vaccine is, Bloomberg reports.

Why it matters: Following Phase 3 trials, Oxford and AstraZeneca said their vaccine was 90% effective in people who got a half dose followed by a full dose, and 62% effective in people who got two full doses.

Updated 13 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus cases rose 10% in the week before Thanksgiving.
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions.
  3. World: Expert says COVID vaccine likely won't be available in Africa until Q2 of 2021 — Europeans extend lockdowns.
  4. Economy: The winners and losers of the COVID holiday season.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.