How ants go for a war, use suicide bombers and catch cheating partners?
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When I stumbled upon the above photograph in a search result in internet about animal intelligence, I smiled through my sleep-sunken eyes. Well, I knew it for a fact that ants are intelligent, hard working and extremely systematic creatures. But while saving the world from ant apocalypse by not eating in the library sounded as a novel approach to discourage foods inside the library, the possibility appeared as too far-fetched for any serious deliberation. Then for some unfathomable reason, 'what if' gripped my mind. Is it really possible?
Ants have the greatest insect biomass (more than all humans). But in comparison to 2,50,000 neurons in their brain, the human average adult contains approximately 100 billion neurons and more in the non-neuron cells (glia). Yes, ants have the largest brain when it comes to the insect world and might demonstrate some reasoning ability when it comes to problem-solving, but I thought that they might demonstrate such behaviour on a very crude rudimentary level about how they find resources and fight enemies.
'C'mon, ants are innocent!', as a raconteur of slightly bizarre tales with a sigh of wistfulness, I tried to convince myself that for once, something is just as it appears. Tiny, crawly, hustling creatures without any ears and lungs who believe in the division of labours and live inside organized colonies. That's it!
Of course, I didn't immediately consider about giant Amazonian ant, bullet ants and some such source of potent stings. After all, my first introduction with them in childhood started with a much simpler fact: blacks are harmless and ticklish, red ones bite and cause instant stinging sensation and irritation, large ones only crawl around unless they feel threatened and you need to just displace them from your skin or space with a soft strike. Nobody protests, nobody counter-attacks. They are just too busy to save resources for long winter months to get into unnecessary friction with humans!
As far as the saying goes that a lion cub can be killed by a single ant colony, I took it with dollops of salt but pondered whether a colony of bullet ants can get this done. Both animals use scent marking on their pathways but attempting to find any other fair-play similarities between them sounded ludicrous. Still I started doing some research on ant — observing them more closely — and my jaw dropped when I learnt that ants are capable of launching sophisticated chemical and physical warfare including invasion and looting foods from enemy, implementing suicide bombings to death rituals to tactical deception, and conducting loyalty test, to name a few of their complex behaviours, which I earlier attributed to 'big-brained' mammals.
Yes, ants can detect cheating and there's no specific Sherlock Holmes ant who does this job. One deviant behavior and other members of the colony immediately get that red flag and consider this as a punishable offence. And no, I couldn't anymore maintain my air of blasé or amused smile at that. I found it quite gripping for a comfortable chuckle.
But first, why ants go for a war though?
I remember about giant mound of white ants (termites) that I often see in forest areas. After all, termites are the oldest social animals and as the first animal societies on earth, they created hugely positive impact across diverse ecosystems as their continuous digging enable moisture penetration in the soil.
Even though they are called as wood ants or white ants, I learnt that termites are not even closely related to ants, and their nearest insect relatives are cockroaches. Termites have, as a matter of fact, started society 50 million years before ants and bees, alongside the dinosaurs during the Jurassic Period. Ants can be in their enemy camp. For example, Honeypot ants attack foraging termites by gathering at a 'tournament site' where 'the workers from each colony circle each other while standing high on their legs'.
Yet, ants and termites have a lot of surface-level similarities. To start with, both live in underground colonies or create their homes inside trees. Some species of ants like Army Ants exhibit nomadism though and a nest is constructed out of the living ant workers' own bodies to protect the queen and larvae. But what's the need for violence?
In a conducive habitat where members of multiple colonies bump on each other due to abundant population, even the cross-species ones, the threat of losing territory and resources to another species of ants or another colony of the same species is real and the tension is perceptible. That's why ants are engaging in war for hundreds of millions of years! And when I mention war, I don't mean just painful stings, they can get aggravated enough to pin down enemies and dismember them or exude toxic chemicals to confuse them.
While searching for food and resources, if the territory shrinks, the number of contacts increases and the ant alters its search pattern. If it expands, contact decreases and it changes the pattern in a different way. Costa Rica’s Acanthogonathus trap jaw ant has colonies with only a few dozen individuals and they respond to conflict with flight instead of violence because a few ants can move with a moment's notice.
Ecologist Mark W. Moffett noticed other strategies to evade full-on war. He mentioned, 'An ant I recorded in Ecuador with colonies of similarly middling size respond to attacks from more powerful enemies by rolling pebbles over the nest entrance to seal it from assaults, a technique employed by the ancient Cappadocians of Turkey. When a worker of certain Borneo ant species contacts an enemy she blows up by squeezing her body so hard that the cuticle ruptures, spewing out a toxic yellow glue from an internal gland. The intruder dies before it has a chance to run home and report the location of the suicide bomber’s nest.'
Exploding ants were noticed first during 1916 in the dense rainforest canopies of South-East Asia. Nicknamed as Yellow Goo, Colobopsis explodens are the first documented species to showcase this unusually effective defense, covering intruder of enemy camp with toxic liquids. Minor workers, those are particularly prone to self-sacrifice, only take up this role of suicide bombers, and I can't miss the irony of the parallel fate in human species. Nobody important enough from the offender's end usually sacrifices their life in a terrorist attack but they use their twisted intelligence to systematically brainwash least privileged members of their camp. Ants are seemingly operating the same way but I can't be squeamish about it.
Moral grandstanding doesn't make sense here and I resist being anthropomorphic as far as possible. But it's now clear to me that human society is not singular in any way in terms of harbouring terrorism and Mark Moffett shared photos to prove suicide bomber ants self-detonating.
Do I sense a certain similarity between Russian strategy against Ukraine and the ones adopted by ants?
In the early hours of February 24, 2022, Putin used Ukrainian provocations to allegedly launch an actual False Flag attack in order to create an impression of a Ukrainian onslaught and impending humanitarian crisis. False Flag attack are attacks by a government on its own forces to create the appearance of hostile action by an opponent, allowing the government to broadcast images to the world of its opponent’s supposed actions.
The more I studied ants, the more I realized that ants are a very good reference point to study modern warfare strategies. Some species survive by attacking other colonies and pretty much an epic battle is on the cards during such invasion. The triumphant side holds their antenna (flag?) high while taking booty in the form of eggs and larvae, whom they later raise almost like an act of benevolence but use as their own slaves. For example, Amazon ants are totally reliant on captured ants to feed themselves as they are incapable of procuring resources.
The ecological dominance of social insects and success of evolutionary forces are dependent on multifaceted recognition system, which helps ants distinguish friends from foes. For example, carpenter ants don't recognize friends in the colony, but are endowed with the power of recognizing and rejecting non-nestmates by following odour cues. And make no mistake about it, some species of ants are quite an expert at deception, as they are evolved to invade, survive and reproduce within a host colony of another social species.
They even manage to evade colony-specific recognition system, achieved principally by chemical deception that tricks the host workers into treating the invading parasite as their own kin! Sounds uncannily similar to False Flag attack, isn't it? But just like it is with every deceiver, there's someone out there who can dose them with their own medicine. From looking like ants to copying their chemical signatures, almost 300 species of spiders accurately mimic weaver ants to dominate tropical tree canopies.
Now I can relate to what Biologist Lewis Thomas observed, 'Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies to war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.' Every colony has its own chemical signature and that's how ants distinguish between own colony members and non-colony members. Workers release pheromones with specific messages, such as “Follow me to food!” or “Attack the intruder!”. A queen doesn't need competition from invasive species in the neighbourhood as they must produce good eggs to maintain the sanctity of the gene pool.
To quote Rachel Davis from his article published in Nature, "The plot thickens when relationships between colonies are taken into account. Slave-making ants such as Protomagnathus americanus engage in violent raids on the nests of other species. During these excursions, the marauding ants kill all the adults, and steal the larvae. Yikes. When these captive larvae mature, they begin to broadcast the same chemical signature as their kidnappers, and become servants of their enslaving queen. Eventually, they are so well assimilated that they will actually participate in raids on other colonies!"
Could it be an indication that ants exhibit Stockholm syndrome too? A colony is analogous to a brain where there are lots of neurons, each of which can only do something very simple, but as a collective, it can function like a sophisticated and complex system. So while an individual in an ant colony may not be intelligent at all but millions in a colony can act surprisingly smart. The 'wisdom of crowd' wins it for them.
Loyalty or cruelty?
Queen's only role is to reproduce. The fertile flying ants mate during their two or three hour flight, after which the mated females shed their wings and make suitable chambers in nesting sites to lay eggs, while post-mating, their male counterparts die. She mates once in a lifetime and stores all the sperms she needs. So there's plenty of hard work involved to get the successive brood of workers in a colony and the worker ants won't survive without their queen at this stage.
In such an arrangement, workers (genetically all brothers and sisters) giving into reproductive urges are not only met with restraining orders, but even news of harbouring such a fantasy spreads like a wildfire. When it comes to private domain, I don't think ants are particularly referring to any homiletics about how to conduct themselves.
A queen ant chemically marks the potential competitor and sends lower-ranked females to tackle with any potential fertile female to eliminate competition. Sounds like straight out of a dramatic TV serial! When an ant is capable of reproducing, they emit scent chemicals called cuticular hydrocarbon. Infertile ants don't produce any such odours. So when other colony members find such an odour on someone, they promptly launch an attack. This Draconian sexual rules while makes one slightly uncomfortable, come to think of it, even in human society scent plays a crucial role in exposing philandering and it's interesting to note that chastising cheating is implemented in most of the successful societies. This reproductive lockdown continues in a colony until the queen dies or experimentally eliminated as I recorded with black garden ants.
Rachel's article mentioned that "An ant has 50% genetic similarity with any potential offspring. Remember that females have two sets of each chromosome, while males only have one copy of each chromosome. This means that every daughter receives the same exact paternal chromosome, but has only a 50/50 chance of inheriting the same maternal chromosome. So sister ants share 75% genetic similarity. For females, "farming" or nurturing their own mother to produce sisters is actually a better way of furthering their own genes. If they reproduced, their offspring would only have 50% genetic commonality with them."
Bingo! Now I know why sneaking out in this society is a big deal.
It serves evolutionary purpose of hive mind (how knowledge is collectively sourced instead of learned individually) of the colony to consider straying as problematic. However, at times workers collectively revolt against the queen and nestmates kill her to allow sister workers to lay male eggs. Inbreeding might reduce the diversity of hydrocarbons on the ants’ skin, so that they no longer see one another as enemies and can react to strong stimulus of outsiders. Dawkins' The Selfish Gene immediately came in mind.
Ant's scent divulges other things too. If one of them gets squashed under our feet, as a parting gift, it emits a specific smell which triggers maddening panic in surrounding ants, alerting them about similar fate. They also mix pheromones with food to exchange information in the colony about nutrition and health.
And who can dismiss the fact that ant society marks the beginning of slavery and school? In a study released online in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 'researchers at Arizona State University and Princeton University showed that ants can accomplish a task more rationally than our – multimodal, egg-headed, tool-using, bipedal, opposing-thumbed – selves.'
Many of us consider ants and bees as model for cooperative behaviour. However, there's growing evidence that along with them, even fish and bacteria often cheat. In all animal societies, partners exploit each other in some shape or form while there are organisms who tend to cooperate lifelong even without any policing. When does mutualism (an interaction between individuals of different species that results in positive (beneficial) effects on per capita reproduction and/or survival of the interacting populations) serve an evolutionary purpose and when it breaks down? We don't have the clarity yet. Even though there's some mechanism to regulate it, Natural Selection favours cheating!
I think we have traditionally looked at animal intelligence under a very narrow lens of certain predetermined specifics but even insect brains are far too complicated to be completely understood in anytime soon. American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, once asked, 'It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?.' While he actually criticized the hustle culture, somehow we become predisposed to underestimate ant's intelligence also after reading such quotes, unless we do a deep dive into their intimate world.
Ants are freaking complex! Perhaps the most significant difference between them and us is their lack of ego. They don't show off how sophisticated they are as a life form.
PhotoStory Date: 23.4.2022
Words and Photograph: Amrita Ghosh
Citations and Resources:
Scientific American article: We've Been Looking at Ant Intelligence the Wrong Way
Nature article: Ants change the rules of an evolutionary arms race
Undark Magazine article: When It Comes to Waging War, Ants and Humans Have a Lot in Common