By Maneka Gandhi
Read this and thank God that you are still the boss of the planet. The day ants grow in size, the dominance of the human race is gone:
*Do ants stand for election? Yes, and the months long process is almost as brutal as the Indian elections, according to research published in the The American Naturalist.
When an Indian Jumping Ant colony’s queen dies, the workers, alerted by the absence of her familiar scent, gather at the centre of the colony and form a circle around the larvae and pupae.
One ant starts beating another ant’s head with its antennae and immediately most of the ants in the colony are in fencing duels, which escalate to slaps and then head biting, and “police” ultimately intervene and restore order.
The ants beat each other to see who gets to lay eggs and who doesn’t. Every Indian jumping ant worker can lay eggs, but only if they win. After weeks of conflict – no one dies but lots of minor injuries – 10 to 15 top candidates emerge and they transform into Gamergates. Their heads shrink, their abdomens fill with ovaries and their lifespans grow from six months to five years. The group shares egg-laying power and shared dominance.
Each ant goes from tournament to tournament establishing its power. During a tournament, whoever locks its jaws around the head of another ant wins. The winner gets a boost of a hormone, called dopamine, and this helps it in its next tournament. Dopamine starts activating their reproductive system, while the losers’ reproductive capabilities shut down.
As more ants lose and drop out of the race, gangs of five ants, not taking part but rooting for a particular candidate, will start policing ants that refuse to give up. They will corral the ants for two days and refuse to let them move/take part till the hormone subsides. In effect, these “goondas” are choosing the leaders by forcing ants out of the race.
Three political results emerge: when ants fought evenly with each other and fair tournaments were held, the result was more democratic: a bureaucratic structure with a CEO at the top and power filtering by rank down to the last ant. When the duelling and head biting took place, then a multi leader shared dominant structure came out. But when the goondas or gangs stepped in, a despotic hierarchy emerged — a single ant on top, with all other ants sharing the same rank.
*According to the Institute of Science and Technology, Austria’s paper published in Current Biology, when ants move into a new nest they spend the first days cleaning it thoroughly, like humans moving into a new home. Lasius neglectus ants spray their nests with formic acid ensuring that the nest is clean for first-time occupancy. The adult ants are protected from the poison by a thick skin and eggs by a protective “shell”, the pupae are first covered in a silk cocoon so that they are protected as well till the acid settles down after killing pathogns, just as humans use gloves when they use harmful cleaning products.
*According to a study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, when fire ants are flooded, or need to find land, they band together to form a bell shaped structure, similar to that of the Eiffel Tower.
An individual ant is capable of supporting as many as three other ants, to which it connects using sticky pads on its feet. By continuously scrambling over each other, the ants are able to eventually build a solid base, building on each other from the bottom up. Making tall structures allows them to hunt for empty spaces in which they can create new homes.
In water, fire ants form a dough-like ball by grabbing onto each other with their sticky legs. By staying perpendicular to each other the ants distribute their weight evenly, creating a raft that floats even when fully submerged in water.
*Researchers from the University of Freiburg have discovered how desert ants find their way in a featureless environment. They count precisely. When they set out in search of food in the flat bare environment, they are always able to find their way back to their nest by the shortest route possible. The ants measure the distance they have gone by recording how many steps they have taken — and they use the sun for directional orientation, taking time into account via their own internal clock.
*The ant’s acute sense of smell has allowed them to create the most complicated social organisation on earth, next to humans. The waxy layer, that covers their bodies, is the source of the complex aromas that ants use to communicate. These smells act like uniforms, identifying individual ants by caste, colony and species, regulating their behaviour to make sophisticated and disciplined social systems. Ants see their world through their nose, their antennae. “Ants are unique in the insect world because they have more than 400 odorant receptors compared to 60 to 80 in other insects like fruit flies and mosquitoes. Ground-based communication is very important for them. For instance, ants emit alarm smells from a gland in their mouth if something disturbs their nest. It is a cue for ants to grab their larvae and run to safety. Defenders of the nest start running around with their mandibles open ready to bite. Bright orange citronella ants make a strong citrus smell when alarmed, and Pheidole ants stink of faeces.
*According to the journal Current Biology, carpenter ants who feed from plants construct defensive shelters around the base of these plants, to guard against other insects and protect their food supply. Ants that live in hot, dry habitats survive long periods of drought by storing food. Their specialised seed-harvesters collect huge stockpiles underground. Honey pot ants use their own bodies as storage containers.
*A colony of ants employs queens, gardeners, cleaners, foragers, nurses and soldiers, and each have developed specialised tools and skills to get their respective jobs done. Within each species, division of labour varies, depending on an individual’s age and sex. Ants looking after the brood, and working inside the nest, tend to be younger, while those defending the nest and foraging outside are older.
*Ants also teach in formal schools, with teachers and pupils, according to a study in the journal, Nature. Older ants teach younger ants how to find food, using a poking and prodding technique called tandem running. When female worker ants of the species Temnothoraxalbipennis set out for food, they take another ant to make the journey with. If the second ant doesn’t know where to find food, the leader teaches her through tandem running. The process is slow. The follower pauses every once in a while—creating a gap between it and the leader—to search for landmarks. When she is ready to continue, the follower catches up and taps the leader on the hind legs. If the gap between them gets too large, the leader slows down and the follower speeds up. The opposite occurs if the gap becomes too small. This is the first non-human example of bi-directional feedback teaching—where both the teacher and pupil modify their behaviour to provide guidance at a rate suitable for the pupil’s abilities. In time, the followers learn the path and become teachers.
*Fungus-gardening Attine ants cultivate fields of fungus to feed the colony. But have the same problems as human farmers—crop-eating pests in the form of parasitic microfungi. A study in the journal Science shows that these ants use antibiotic-producing bacteria to keep their harvests from reducing.
The undersides of these ants are covered with fuzzy white clumps, and there are tiny cavities inside, which contain bacteria producing antibiotics that are deadly to garden pests. To keep the fields clean, the ants rub the bacteria all over. The ants use special glands inside the cavities to produce food for the bacteria.
Do you still think you are superior?
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