[UPBEAT ELECTRONIC MUSIC] SPEAKER 1: HexaPod. HexaPod.
OLIVER: This is Oliver.
JULIA: And this is Julia. And you’re listening to HexaPod, a podcast on six legs.
OLIVER: Today, we’re going to be talking about ants. There are some surprisingly advanced ways that ants have adapted to their surroundings and may even give us a run for our money. Humans believe that we are the most highly evolved species on the planet, and for good reason, right? No other member of the animal kingdom has matched humans in terms of innovation, invention, and civilization, right?
JULIA: Actually, as we have found over the course of our research, there are a lot of things that humans are proud of that ants have been doing for longer than humans have even existed. Take farming, for instance. We learn in elementary school that farming is what kick-started a new era for humans. It was the ability to use and maintain natural resources that allowed humans to stay in one place, build civilizations, and set ourselves apart from more primitive creatures. But as it turns out, ants perfected farming way before we ever did.
OLIVER: Leafcutter ants, members of the Atta genus, have special mandibles perfectly adapted to cut leaves into manageable pieces. The ants take these leaves back to their nests, where they are kept underground and used as fodder for a massive fungus garden.
JULIA: The ants cultivate the fungus, replenishing the leaves as necessary, and maintaining the colony on this food source alone.
OLIVER: This is a good survival technique, because it removes all risks of starvation, food shortages, and poisons. Because they grow their own food, these ants are at much lower risk from insecticide poisoning.
JULIA: Some ants take this a step further and outsource their labor. In the cute children’s movie A Bug’s Life, based off of a fable called “The Ant and the Grasshoppers,” a group of grasshoppers force a colony of ants to gather food for them for the winter. In real life, though, the ants are the ones that take advantage of a smaller, weaker bug. A certain kind of ant, called herder or daring ants, actually use aphids as a renewable resource. The aphids secrete a sugary nectar from their abdomen, and the ants eat this nectar. And in exchange, the ants actually protect the aphids from larger predators.
OLIVER: That’s right. The ants invented the mob way before humans even existed. This is what’s known as a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. The ants control the aphids– where they’re allowed to go, how much they’re allowed to breed. And in exchange, the aphids get protection. It may seem like the ants get the sweeter end of the deal, which is, of course, the back end of an aphid where the nectar is secreted. But the ants will go to any length to protect the aphids, just like the mob. If you fulfill your end of the deal, they’ve got your back.
But what about the ants that don’t want to settle down, the ones that just want a quick meal and not a massive farm? And if you look back at how humans have answered this question throughout our history, the answer becomes clear. You go hunting. That’s another thing that really sets humans apart from other creatures– in our minds anyway– is our ability to construct clever traps to take down much larger animals for food.
JULIA: Allomerus ants that live in the Amazon actually do the same thing and construct elaborate traps to take down bugs that can be up to 10 or 20 times their size. These ants create a honeycomb-like structure out of plant fibers in order to set up an ambush for their prey. They hollow out the stems of plants, and worker ants hide and wait in the holes of the honeycomb-like structure with their mouths open, ready and waiting for their prey to come by.
When a larger bug, like a butterfly or locust, comes by and puts their foot or entire leg into the honeycomb-like structure, the worker ants bite down on the prey, injecting it with a pretty paralyzing venom. They work together to cut the larger bug, essentially, limb from limb, pulling it to pieces and distributing it among the colony.
OLIVER: And not only do they take advantage of their natural surroundings and create these traps, they actually repair and maintain the traps that they make with a special fungus that they cultivate, much like the leafcutter ants do.
JULIA: But what about when these sneaky combat techniques aren’t enough? Another things that humans believe sets them apart from the animal kingdom is war. Sure, other members of the animal kingdom engage in conflict, even group conflict. But it’s ants and humans that have really perfected the art of war. The aptly named army ant actually utilizes a lot of the same techniques in combat that human troops do as well.
OLIVER: They organize their troops in a strategic way. Rather than charge in all at once, these ants send the smaller, weaker, older, or crippled ants in first to act as sort of a brute force wave of pawns. In addition, they also practice tactical deception, which is rare to see on such a large scale. This involves things like standing on things to appear taller and spreading out their troops strategically in order to seem much larger than they actually are. With the right amount of tactical deception, these ants can win battles through intimidation alone.
JULIA: It’s not just war, and it’s not just agriculture that sets humans apart from animals in our mind. What about infrastructure? What about buildings, architecture, transportation? Things like that are certainly unique to humans, right? It’s probably not a big surprise that, once again, humans are outdone by a bunch of ants– in this case, fire ants.
Fire ants are particularly interesting to study because they don’t really operate as individuals, but rather, as a giant hive mind or superorganism. Through a combination of pheromones, following the leader, and all having essentially the same goal, fire ants are able to work as a cohesive unit. And the things they can accomplish as a unit are honestly mind-blowing.
OLIVER: Fire ants are all about protection, getting the largest number of them to a new location with the fewest casualties. When it’s time for a fire ant colony to move to a new location, they create long tunnels with their bodies for workers to move the eggs through. And they grab onto each other’s legs with their mandibles, creating living, moving structures for maximum protection. The workers take their posts on the outside of these tunnels with their mandibles facing outwards in order to attack anything that may try to eat the ants or the eggs.
When they finally get to the new location, there’s no tunnels dug yet. So in order to protect the eggs, the pupa, the larva, and the queen, the fire ants will make a temporary structure out of their own bodies while they wait for the tunnels to be dug. This structure is called a bivouac. And it’s incredibly malleable and incredibly strong. It can withstand tremendous pressure and provides maximum protection for the eggs and the queen.
JULIA: Additionally, if these fire ants have their colonies flooded, or if they need to cross a small stream, they can, in a similar way to creating the bridges, they extend their mandibles and hold onto each other’s legs using those mandibles, and also flatten their bodies in order to create small rafts with the large numbers of their colonies.
OLIVER: These ants take advantage of the fact that most exoskeletons are naturally hydrophobic and are able to float on top of any body of water and correct for any sort of motion or sinking that may occur.
So what does this mean? Are ants going to take over the world? Are ants actually the dominant species on the planet? No, of course not. But what it does mean is that maybe it’s important to look past the creepy-crawly feeling we get when we see a swarm of ants and appreciate them for what they are– a highly evolved, incredibly varied group of organisms that are pretty freaking cool.
JULIA: We would like to thank you very much for listening to our podcast, HexaPod, a podcast on six legs. And we hope that you learned a little bit more about ants.