We share our food, and even our homes, with ants, and can’t seem to get away from them, no matter where we travel. But, despite their relative constancy in our lives, we don’t seem to know much about ants, aside from the fastest way to kill them. As it turns out, there are a great many intriguing facets about ants, many of which paint the little critters as shockingly close to human. As it turns out …
10. They Can Stitch Up Wounds
Minor wounds are considered just an annoyance, with advanced medicine just a call away. However, if we are in the middle of the African Savannah, with no first aid kit, and the nearest help we can get is still days away, fixing that little wound can mean life or death. Apparently, some tribes, like the Masai Tribe in East Africa, faced the same problem and found an easy first aid trick on the go – the army ant’s strong pincers.
If a Masai warrior is out in the African bush and suffers a wound that needs stitching, all he needs to do is look for an Army Ant’s nest and pick a few of the biggest ants he could find and have them bite both sides of the wound then break off the body, leaving just the head. The seal created by the makeshift surgical staples can last for days, and can be easily replaced if needed.
9. Before God Created Man, He Created Ants First
We all know that we, as a species, are relative newbies in the whole of creation, evolving a mere five million years ago. Now, compare that to a living fossil like the ant, who has been around since the Cretaceous Period, about 110 – 130 million years ago. The age gap, and the relative high social evolution of the ants, may mean that only a fluke roll of the celestial dice made the difference in regards to which species came first.
8. They Dispose Of Their Dead
Only a few creatures on Earth treat their dead with some relative deference: humans, elephants, and shockingly, ants. They even have undertakers to do it. When an ant dies inside the nest, they will carry the dead body outside for sanitation’s sake, so that infection or disease cannot spread to the entire colony. Though any worker ant may carry the body outside, it seems that there is a special ant undertaker that will usually do the cleaning up.
7. They Can Clone Themselves
Parthenogenesis is a form of reproduction where there is no need for fertilization, making the resulting offspring a clone of the mother. A group of Amazonian ants was found to give birth to clones of themselves, creating a colony with no males around and somewhat echoing the legend of the fierce Amazons who do not tolerate male company.
Not to be outdone, the males of the small fire ant, whose queens also practice parthenogenesis in giving birth to new queens, makes sure that their genetic legacy spreads on by cloning themselves. This special trick of the male small fire ant involves eliminating the female genome in some of the fertilized eggs, making the ant a perfect clone of the father. This unique reproductive maneuverings of both the female and male small fire ant results in a nest, composing of ants of the same species, that has the genetic makeup of three completely different species; the queen clones, the male clones, and the sterile female workers with mixed genes.
6. They Teach Their Young
As social insects, ants have a very advanced system going on in their colonies, in order to insure their survival worker ants are put into groups that does various specialized jobs like foraging, janitorial services, or caretaker of eggs and baby ants. What is surprising is that these worker ants are not born with the necessary skills already pre-programmed in their DNA to do some of these specialized works. For them to have these skills they do what we humans do, learn it from someone who knows how things are done. The teacher ants “teaching style” is called tandem-running where the teacher ant will teach a younger ant the ropes by running with it. This kind of teaching, even more surprisingly, involves a two way interaction between teacher and student; the first in a non-human animal. And if a student is a slow learner and fails in its “exams” it will be relegated to some other job that does not require specialized skills.
5. They Know How Agriculture Works
Among all creatures, we now of only four that are evolved enough to use agriculture as a means of survival: bark beetles, termites, humans, and ants. However, between ants and us, it seems they started farming first, having been at it since 50 million years ago. Before moving out of her birth nest, a young queen must first sneak inside the garden and take away some fungal pellets. These pellets will be the “seedlings” that she needs to start her own garden and feed her brood.
Attine ants do their farming by cultivating fungi, just like humans do in farming crops; they even use pesticides to combat parasites that affects their “crops.” There are five known systems of agriculture that ants practice, but all ants that practice agriculture are shown to share some general habits in fungal gardening. This may suggest that ants are e-mailing their fellow garden buddies for some gardening tips.
4. They Use Herbicides And Disinfectant
Speaking of pesticides, ants use them, as well as herbicides, in their fungal gardens. Theirs is far more eco-friendly than ours, however. The fungal gardens that ants grow are also home to a virulent kind of fungus that kills the fungal crops. To prevent this fungal weed from spreading, the ants have a bacteria at their disposal that they carry around on their cuticles. This bacteria produces an antibiotic that specifically suppresses the growth of the fungal weed.
In their nests, they use several substances that inhibit the spread of parasites or weeds. The wood ants, for example, add solidified conifer resins to their nests while building them, which hinders the growth of bacteria and fungi. The lemon ant, which prefers to nest in trees, produces a natural herbicide that kills all other plant life surrounding their nesting tree, including grown trees. They do this by injecting leaves with herbicide, and the plants will start to die within hours.
3. They Raise Livestock
Ants do not only raise crops, but also livestock, which they use for “milking.” The livestock consists of insects (like aphids, mealybugs, and myrmecophilous caterpillars) that secrete a sweet liquid called honeydew. The ants keep the predators away from their livestock, and even herd them from one feeding location to another, just like what we do with cows. When it is time to collect some honeydew from the livestock, the ants “milk” them, by tapping them with their antennae. The ants even bring their precious livestock with them when they migrate to a new area. Kind of reminds us of frontiersmen bringing their cattle along while in search of greener pastures.
2. They Wage Wars
Imagine the scene in the final battle of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: total carnage wherever you look, with the battle lines blurred out as the warring parties are jumbled up in the heat of battle, with groups of soldiers clustering together to form a cohesive front and take out an enemy at a time. Now imagine, instead of the handsome unsullied face of Legolas and his crew, you get ants with menacing mandibles and scary big eyes of doom. The tactics ants use in warfare are eerily similar to human war strategies, and they even vary their tactics depending on what is at stake. They can even use “propaganda pheromones” to confuse enemy ants and, make them fight among themselves.
There are even species of ants, like the amazon ants, that oddly resemble the fabled Spartans in their way of life. Namely, they only survive through waging wars to replenish their slaves, and to get more resources from other colonies. They even act like medieval knights when in their nests, doing nothing more than demanding food from their slaves, and burnishing their chittenous armor.
And yes, when we said slavery, we meant it …
1. They Practice Slavery
As a whole, ants are known for being hard workers but, just like humans, there are some rotten apples in their baskets. There are several species of ants that are dependent for slave labor for survival, and who will actively wage war against other colonies to steal the pupae and enslave them upon hatching.
The most rotten apple in the basket is a species of ants called Polyergus breviceps, which interestingly, is endemic in the United States. This species of ants have lost their ability to take care of their young and even themselves. They “do not forage for food, feed the young or the queen, or even clean up their own nest.” This kind of behavior would mean certain extinction for most species, but these ants have a super weapon up their sleeve – weapons of mass subjugation. The warrior ants will attack a nest, and release a formic acid against the defenders. This will trigger panic among their ranks and crumble their defense, making it a breeze to steal the pupae.
If that is not enough, they have a more formidable weapon – their queen. The queen of Polyergus breviceps is capable of releasing pheromones that will reduce the aggression of the defending ants, making them easy for conquest. In some instances, when the ants badly need more slaves, the queen will go out with the warriors to war. After releasing her pheromones to crush the aggression of the defenders, she will immediately look for the queen of the overtaken nest and kill her. When the deed is done, the invader queen will become the new queen of the invaded nest, and the defenders all bow down to her and address her as “her majesty the queen.”
Everything is not lost for the slaves though; every so often they stage rebellions against their masters, by ripping apart the larvae of those that enslaved them. This means the slaver ants have less chance of going out and conquering more, as their numbers are quickly dwindling. Thus saving other ants from slavery, one baby ant at a time.