The terrifying world of ants puts humans in perspective

Monday, November 16, 2020 - 10:25am

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Ants are small, numerous and have taken over the surface of the world. These seemingly innocuous, tiny creatures are deadly in their world of thievery, conquest and warfare. In a way that corresponds to human nature, some species of ants beg, borrow and steal from neighboring colonies to survive. Argentine ants, in particular, have spread throughout the world to every continent except Antarctica in a global imperialistic invasion. Many parallels can be drawn between the behaviors of ants and humans that can allow us to examine our own behavior in a new light. We can and should learn from the inner workings of ant society.

Animals in nature often commit what we today would view as war acts without remorse, tearing other animals limb from limb and eradicating neighboring tribes or nations; ants are no exception. They pillage rival anthills, killing millions of their kind almost every day. Some ant species resort to downright exploding themselves to take down foes. This kills not only the larger attacking ant but the attacker themselves. This ant’s only purpose at this moment is to die for its tribe, despite its lifelong work of collecting food, sustaining itself and being useful to its colony. The ant’s sacrifice will benefit the colony but at the extreme expense of taking its own life. 

Ants commit the ultimate individual sacrifice for the sake of the colony without hesitating or knowing the enormity of their actions to their community. We like to think that humans are strong and brave for rising above our built-in selfish natures by committing small acts of altruism, but this perception needs reconsideration. The average human isn’t selfless when compared to almost any ant in existence. 

Another perception that needs changing: Humans are the ultimate social creature on Earth, collaborating to erect massive works of architecture and complex intellectual theories. You guessed it. Ants are one of the most social creatures on Earth — more so than humans. In fact, they’re hive creatures (the scientific term for this is eusociality). They do things for their colonies that most humans wouldn’t dream of doing for their own countries without major consideration.

There are more than 16,000 different ant species on the planet today. In fact, scientists estimate a total of 20,000 species of ants in existence on Earth, which means about 4,000 species have yet to be discovered. Behavior varies between the different species (e.g. some ant species focus on foraging for plants while others almost exclusively raid other nests and insects). Despite great physiological diversity among species, almost all individual ants exhibit a willingness to sacrifice for the entire nest more than an individual human would for a town or country, bringing us back to the point that human selflessness as a construct lags behind that of ants.

As well as being more selfless and more social than humans, ants do war better than we do. Among the 16,000 total ant species discovered, there is an “army ant” sect that consists of 200 ant species. These aggressive species raid other animals to obtain food, attacking prey with enormous numbers. Warrior ants such as the Argentine ant and the red imported fire ant are waging wars daily, killing and consuming hundreds of thousands of prey animals per day. Humans have taken over the world in the sense that we have conquered most of the available land on Earth, and it’s interesting to think that ants have already done this; after all, they’ve had 160 million years of existence to spread themselves around the world. This is the consequence of perfectly synchronized sociality and sacrifice.

We praise the qualities of social achievement and altruistic behavior, but from ants we have learned that these qualities are not good for an animal in the extreme. If groups of humans were fully social or completely altruistic, we could have mass war on our hands — and everyone can agree that that is not a good thing.

Army ants have very few means of communication relative to humans. Visually, they can tell night from day and distinguish almost nothing more than that. They can’t even form an image of the world around them, relying on their senses of smell and touch for detecting vibrations. Their only tool for communication is the use of pheromones. However, warrior ants are still capable of amassing huge groups for raids, sometimes even more than 100,000 individuals — amazing given how difficult it is for humans to organize ourselves with all five of our senses. Their behavior can even inform how computers should be organized, because it’s miraculous that they can successfully function socially given their limited forms of communication. 

The world of army ants and their ant neighbors is vicious. We should care about ants because their behavior so closely mirrors our own. War, cooperation, sacrifice: Ants do each of these things better than humans ever have. Ants are the meta-social epitome of what we don’t want human society to become. Every day, thousands of ants die as their colonies bring chaos and violence upon other unassuming prey. Their environmental niche drives them to kill millions of other animals weekly. This is the terrifying world that exists under the feet of our civilization.

Margaret Rudnick can be reached at rudnickm@umich.edu.


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