The many species of ants and their similarities with humans: How the tiny insects showcase brutal survival skills and warfare tactics

  • Ants have all awful instincts of human beings and yet possessing a deadly precision and efficiency, which leaves no waste behind

  • Certain ancient species of ants have been found trapped in ancient Burmese amber

  • While ants have eyes, they rely on scents to follow their nestmates to food and identify friends from foes

We are lucky that the 13,000 species of ants, discovered till now, are tiny. If they were even the size of cats, they would be the rulers of the universe by now, having discovered ways to reach Mars, and colonise the moon, and would have solved any mathematical or gravitational problem. They would have built metal-less weapons, sailed oceans and destroyed as many other species as possible. They would be in constant warfare, but their wars would not destroy the land around them, or foul air and water.

One of the reasons I love ants is that I find them exactly like human beings, little 'mini-me's with all awful instincts of human beings and yet possessing a deadly precision and efficiency, which leaves no waste behind.

I learn more from them every day. For instance, just like humans, ants often fight over food and territory. However, ants began fighting with each other, or other nests of their own species, or even other species, long before humans — at least 99 million years ago — according to a report in Current Biology by fossil experts in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, Newark.

 The many species of ants and their similarities with humans: How the tiny insects showcase brutal survival skills and warfare tactics

Reprsentational image. Wikimedia Commons

Certain ancient species of ants have been found trapped in ancient Burmese amber. These “hell ants” were discovered to have mammoth like tusk-jaws which were used to impale prey - which, fortunately, modern ants don’t have.

In Mark Moffett's book, Adventures Among Ants, he writes about the territorial disputes between two huge colonies of Argentine ants in California. Along the front line. millions of ants die every month in what is a never-ending struggle, much like the India-Pakistan situation. Even Charles Darwin wrote about human-like conflicts between ants.

Here are some of the other similarities ants have with humans:

— The Florida ant (Formica archboldi) decorates its nest with the skulls of its enemies, the trap-jaw ants. Even though trap-jaw ants are bigger, have stingers and mouths that close like bear-traps and can catapult to freedom when attacked. Thus, it's fascinating that a much smaller F. archboldi is able to overpower it?

A study published in the journal Insectes Sociaux reveals that the Florida ant possesses acid spraying nozzles (like machine guns) and attack its quarry with quick sprays of toxic acid. They cut off the heads of their victims and take them back as trophies. But first, they hide within the trapdoor ants by producing a waxy layer of scent that matches their smell perfectly! Chemical cues are vital to ants. While ants have eyes, they rely on scents to follow their nestmates to food and identify friends from foes.

— However, F. archboldi ants have their own problems. Polyergus ants kidnap and brainwash entire colonies of F. archboldi. In fact, they are known as pirate or kidnapper ants and their modus operandi is as follows: The kidnapper ant queen identifies an archboldi ant colony. She sneaks in, murders the queen, and then bathes in her blood. Thereafter, she takes her place, using this newly-acquired scent to avoid detection and pumps out a bunch of eggs inside the F. archboldi nest. These eggs then hatch into Polyergus workers who capture the rest of the nest.

— Researchers have documented the first known instance of insects moving the prey by forming chains. Bluish Leptogenys ants drag huge millipedes in Phnom Kulen National Park, Cambodia. Each ant bites on a constriction on the abdomen of the ant ahead of it, while the first ant bites tight on the millipede's antenna. Walking backwards, the ants heave the millipede away. Other ants form chains too. Weaver ants and army ants build chains to sew nests and cross waters, respectively. But the Leptogenys ants are the first insects known to carry the prey by making long chains. Some ants walk ahead of the chains to clear the path.

— The big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala) colonies have soldier ants with disproportionately large heads and giant jaws which they use to attack other ants and cut the prey. According to the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, big-headed ant soldiers grow larger when they encounter other ants that know how to fight back.

Big-headed ants are world travellers, hitching rides with humans to get around. Their arrival at a warm destination spells almost certain doom for native ants, spiders, beetles and other invertebrates. Big-headed ants spread out, assembling multiple nests that cooperate on defence, reproduction, territorial expansion and food procurement. If their prey is not aggressive, the ants remain the same size. But if they encounter competitors in the local area, they can grow three times their size. Genetic analysis shows that the size variation is not the result of long-term evolutionary change. It is simply a uniquely quick response (within 60 days) to a new environment.

— Trap-jaw ants train to fight by holding antenna boxing bouts. These bouts also establish levels of dominance within the nest as ants have a hierarchy of roles within the colony.

Trap-jaw ant species engage in antennal "boxing," a quick fight involving striking one another with their antennae, to determine which of the worker ants will stay in the nest and which will go out to forage. Entomologists at the University of Illinois, whose findings are in the journal Insectes Sociaux, counted how rapidly four ant species pummelled their opponents during antenna-boxing bouts. The speeds ranged from 19.5 strikes per second for Odontomachus rixosus, from Cambodia, to a blazing-fast 41.5 strikes per second for Odontomachus brunneus, of Florida. Trap-jaw ants are the fastest boxers ever recorded.

— Terrorists and Colobopsis Exploden ants from Borneo have the same suicidal strategies, according to the study published in the journal ZooKeys. When confronted by another insect, the ants actively burst their body walls and release a sticky, toxic substance that can repulse or even kill the enemy. The workers also die in the attack.

— Army ants send out a huge raiding party that sweeps through the forest. If they find the swarm raid of another army ant nest they either ignore each other: the two huge swarm parties pass through each other almost as if the other did not exist or both colonies retreat in opposite directions, away from each other. But if they find another species of ants, like Leafcutter ants, they attack, even if it is a very large colony. Soldiers of both species line up and engage in absolutely cataclysmic battles that go on for days before the army ants finally break through the defence and go down to the leaf-cutter nest and pillage the brood.

When army ants arrive, the prey ant colony evacuates the nest. What they usually do is, they grab the babies and run till a distance. There they stand and wait. After the army ants depart, the prey ants go back to the nest.

— Wars need backups in the form of medics to save the wounded. Megaponera analis, a small black ant species native to sub-Saharan Africa, wages war on termite nests. Attacking ants can have their limbs ripped off by termites. Instead of leaving the hurt ants behind, other ants will carry them back home where they can heal and participate again in future raids. Once back at the nest, healthy ants attend to the wounded, licking their injuries for minutes at a time. This strikingly unusual behaviour raises the survival rate for injured ants from a mere 20 percent to 90 percent, according to a research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society. M. analis colonies aren't that large, and only a dozen or so baby ants are born each day. Losing one or two ants each day could be quite significant, so they find ways to reduce the mortality.

— In the United States, the South American fire ant armies are being beaten by the armies of a new invader – the tawny crazy ant. In the journal Science, entomologists at the University of Texas explain why the smaller tawny crazy ants are winning.

Fire ants spew extremely toxic venom at other ants. Most ants just die. But the crazy ants charge into the fray. The key to their success is their chemical defence. Once an ant is sprayed, it retreats from the battle and applies its own caustic venom, which acts like a healing salve, neutralizing the effect of the fire ant's toxic ammunition. And then they run back into the fight. This tactic is so effective that the fire ant population is dying out.

Ants tend to separate the world in a rather simple way, into two classes: colony members and everybody else. Somewhat like humans.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 20:33:11 IST