General, Research, Technology

How do ants turn other species into their slaves?

The reputation of ants is enviable.These industrious insects sacrifice their own benefit for the common good of the colony. They live to serve their queen and take care of all basic tasks, including caring for offspring, collecting food, and keeping the nest in order. But, as often happens, not all species of ants justify their reputation. So, several species have found a way to transfer all important tasks into the hands of performers - their weaker counterparts. A species with a telling name, slave ants, as it turned out, specialize in robbing the offspring of other species. During regular raids, slave owners attack neighboring anthills, kill adults, and take the fertilized eggs with them. Having hatched, the baby ants do not know who their real parents are, and therefore they carry out orders from their new owners, their captors. Interestingly, their labor task includes caring for the offspring of slave ants, as a result of which slave owners can become so dependent on slaves that they cannot feed themselves without outside help. Yet, not all slave ants voluntarily accept their fate. Some violently tear to pieces the offspring of their owners, throwing the remains outside the anthill.

The blood-red ant (Formica sanguinea) carries a newly acquired slave.

Ordinary insects?

Ants are common insects, but they havesome unique abilities. More than 10,000 known ant species are found around the world, and they are especially common in rainforests, where they can account for up to half of all insects living in some places. Interestingly, outwardly, ants are very similar to termites and are often confused. You can distinguish a termite from an ant by the narrow waist of the latter - between the abdomen and the chest. Also, ants have rather large heads, curved antennae and powerful jaws. These insects belong to the order Hymenoptera, which include wasps and bees.

Ants usually live in structurednesting communities that can be located underground, in ground level mounds or in trees. Ant communities are headed by a queen or queens, whose main task is to lay thousands of eggs that will ensure the survival of the colony. Work ants (which are most often seen by humans) are wingless females that, instead of breeding, are busy looking for food, caring for the queen's offspring, working in an anthill, protecting the community and performing many other duties. The life of males is more relaxed, since their main goal is to mate with the queen. But only by performing this function they can die.

Interesting that ants communicate and collaborate using chemicalsthat can alert others to dangeror bring them to a food source. Usually ants feed on nectar, seeds, mushrooms or insects. However, some species of ants have unusual tastes. An army of ants can hunt reptiles, birds, or even small mammals.

Today, ants live on all continents except Antarctica.

You will be wondering: Why are ants one of the most powerful insects in the world?

In fact, there are quite a few unusualspecies of ants. Moreover, in nature there are species that parasitize ants and make them, in the literal sense of the word, commit suicide. Read about how parasitic fungi turn ants into zombies in a fascinating article by my colleague Ramis Ganiev.

In the meantime, we will return to the ants thatrebel against the dictatorship of the slave-owning ants. They are typically less than 3 mm in size and are found in the litter of mixed leaves on the east coast of the United States and southern Canada. In most cases, these ants are unaware that they are slaves. When eggs stolen during the raids of slave ants mature and small ants are born, they recognize the smell of the nest and its inhabitants and accept it as their home. In most cases, this system works well and is probably one of the reasons why slavery in ants works - young ants can and will recognize the smell of a slave nest and accept it as their own.

They are social insects, forming 3 castes: females, males and workers. Females and males are winged, workers are wingless.

As The Conversation notes, with evolutionaryant slave rebellion is an interesting problem, since enslaved ants do not directly benefit from their behavior. Since slaveholders are so much larger and stronger, slaves never attack their suppressors directly, but instead target the helpless offspring of their masters. This guerrilla strategy helps keep slaveholders small, but will never lead to the "overthrow of the ruling class" of the slave ants.

Evolutionary puzzle

To solve this problem, you need to considerhistory of enslaved ant species. These ants live in a volatile and fragile environment, in so-called temporary nests - usually acorns in the forest floor litter. This habitat forces the ants to migrate regularly, and sometimes the colony divides if more than one suitable nest site is found. As a consequence, many of these small ant communities inhabit numerous nests in close proximity to each other.

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I wonder what the slave ants are doingraids several times throughout the year and attacks only one nest at a time. As a consequence, the chances that the relatives of some of the enslaved worker ants will survive the attack and still live in the immediate vicinity of the slave owner colony that imprisoned their sisters. Since raiding is a laborious task, the fewer slaveholders nearby, the fewer raids on the surrounding anthills and nests. Thus, rebelling, the slave ants do not help themselves, but protect their loved ones in the nest next door. And yet, no one knows for sure why slave ants attack the offspring of their masters, but the result of the uprisings increases the chances of their relatives living in neighboring nests.