Ants rule world, not humans, says new study

Global domination: There are over 12,000 species of ant worldwide.

Could it be that ants are more powerful than humans? With their mega-cities, transport networks, ventilation, childcare systems, and waste collection they put us to shame, says a new book.

In California, there is a supercolony of Argentine ants. Trillions of members strong, its territory stretches over 621 miles from San Francisco to the Mexican border.

Humans, according to conventional wisdom, have used our unique intelligence to dominate the planet. But who is really in charge?

There are ten quadrillion ants on the planet, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. They make up between 15% and 20% of the planet’s total animal biomass on land.

For biologist Dr Mark Moffet, ant society “represents a pinnacle of social evolution”. He says it has taken humans over 30,000 years to reach a state of sophistication that ants achieved around 50 million years ago.

In ant colonies, you find complex transport networks, ventilation, childcare systems, and waste collection. Each ant has an assigned role.

Today, the way human societies operate is far closer to ants than bonobos or chimpanzees (our closest evolutionary relatives).

The reason is in our numbers. While most animals live in groups of a few hundred at most, only humans and a few social insects, like ants, have populations that can boom into the millions.

Humanity’s big leap came 11,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. Ants got there first.

Leaf cutter ants gather vegetation and cultivate it into edible fungus. Ant colonies even rear livestock, “milking” tiny insects called aphids by stroking their abdomens. If an ant colony moves home, members will pick up their aphids to take with them.

But the resemblance is nowhere clearer than in warfare.

Along the Argentine ants’ Californian border, millions die each week in all-out war with other colonies as brutal and futile as anything in the World War One.

“The front lines shift glacially, month after month, a few metres one way, then the other,” says Moffett.

Ant armies employ complex troop movements and deceptive tactics. Injured ants are carried out of the fray by their comrades. Captured enemy ants are transported back to the colony to act as slave labour.

A bug’s life?

What can ants tell us about ourselves? We both build sophisticated societies. While ants are driven by pheromones and genetic programming, we act from intelligence and education. But isn’t it all just social conditioning? Are we just ants with delusions of grandeur? And is this all proof that large, complex societies can only ever be hostile and violent?

But ant societies are so aggressive because as colonies grow, the extra ants (the reserve workforce) mostly become soldiers. Humans, however, have the unique power of creativity and imagination. Rather than war, we can direct our spare efforts into science, architecture, art, literature. We can overcome our ant nature.

You Decide

  1. Is it fair to say that ants are as complex as humans?
  2. Will human societies ever be peaceful?

Activities

  1. Create a fact box with five interesting facts about ants that you have learned from this story.
  2. A recent study revealed that bees can do basic mathematics. Choose either bees, termites or ants, and find out about their intelligence. Make a poster displaying your findings.

Some People Say...

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!”

The Bible, Proverbs 6:6

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Ants are some of the strongest creatures on Earth, carrying up to 50 times their own body weight. They can also run 80 times the length of their body in a minute. This is the equivalent of a six-foot-tall man running 1.5 kilometres in just 60 seconds.
What do we not know?
The individual intelligence of ants. Previously, many scientists credited the amazing abilities of ant colonies to group, rather than individual, intelligence. But despite their tiny brains, there is a growing body of evidence that individual insects, like ants, termites and bees, can indeed be very intelligent. Studies show ants can learn new information quickly and change their behaviour based on it.

Word Watch

Quadrillion
A million trillions.
Biomass
The total weight of an organism.
Assigned role
Also known as the division of labour. When different tasks are divided up between different workers, sometimes according to size, skills or experience.
Agriculture
Farming.
Aphids
A small bug resembling a greenfly that sucks sap from plants.
World War One
The Somme was one of the biggest battles in World War One. One million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the most disastrous and fatal battles in human history.
Pheromones
Ants use smell signals called pheromones to recognise each other and communicate. They also release pheromones that signal danger upon their death to alert other ants. When they find food, they leave a trail of pheromones to lead other ants from their colony to food.

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