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Ants: Masters of Social Organization and Agriculture

The Largest Civilization in The World

By Akshay MRPublished 2 months ago 5 min read

Imagine a civilization that outnumbers humanity by six orders of magnitude, by one and a half million times, and it's not some bacteria—these creatures have created a fully functional social order with a clear hierarchy, professions, and career ladders. They are long past the hunting and gathering stage, successfully transitioning to agriculture and animal husbandry. They teach the youth, take care of the elderly and the disabled, and bury their dead. They can even reproduce by cloning. This civilization has easily outlived every single species that prevailed on their planet in the last 100 million years. But at the same time, a simple infection can turn them into real zombies. Does it seem like some post-apocalyptic science fiction? Yet, it's not. It's all about ants.

Today, there are 14,218 species of ants alone, not considering the additional 1,758 subspecies. The total number of these creatures is estimated to be about 10 quadrillion individuals. This giant biomass weighs approximately tens of billions of kilograms, exceeding the total weight of humanity as far back as 2,000 years ago. Ants inhabit all corners of the planet, in all continents except Antarctica. They emerged about 110 to 130 million years ago, probably in the Laurasia supercontinent. Historically, they come from ancient wasps, but scientists haven't yet identified any specific wasp species as their ancestors. Despite ants' close resemblance to termites, the two shouldn't be confused; termites aren't even related to them and are closer to cockroaches based on their family tree.

Ants can vary in size by an order of magnitude, with the smallest about two millimeters long and the largest several centimeters. The largest fossil ants in history belong to the genus Formicum; their females reach 7 centimeters long with a wingspan of up to 15 centimeters. Yes, ants have wings, but for the most part, only females and males have wings, while worker ants are wingless. Worker ants are technically females but with an underdeveloped reproductive system, effectively rendering them asexual. Worker ants reproduce by cloning. In the ant community, reproduction is a privilege, an honor, and a great responsibility. Having this privilege doesn't have to do with being the fittest or strongest one but comes by birth. Being a highly diverse species, ants have many reproductive strategies.

Ants are the closest to humans in terms of social structure on Earth. Each new discovery in myrmecology, the science of ants, proves this repeatedly. The ant hill has a strict hierarchy and distribution of roles. The nest is managed by the queen, the founder of the colony who lays eggs. The queen is surrounded by a retinue of 10 to 12 worker ants who serve her by feeding and taking care of her. As a rule, mostly young ants do this, a kind of social practice that all nest inhabitants go through for about a month. The task of such trainees is to take care of the queen's eggs or larvae. Mature individuals go to the farthest part of the anthill patrolling area where they engage in foraging. The ant brings the food it finds to the authorities who decide how it gets distributed throughout the anthill. In addition to food, the anthill is also fed with a special pheromone, an odorous substance secreted by the queen. It contains information about her health, which ants from the retinue lick from the queen and pass on to each other, connecting all individuals of the ant society to one information space, a small-town social network of ants, if you will.

Ants bring up their offspring in a unique way. Ants can learn interactively, acquiring knowledge based on someone else's experience rather than their own mistakes. The most experienced forager or hunter is the first to attack the prey and shows the young its skills on how to attack, sting, and kill, teaching the younger generation hunting skills. In order to learn successfully, one needs to have a good memory, and ants can't complain. Active foragers who look for food on their own can perfectly know their hunting area and remember how to get home if the ant path is blocked by an intricate labyrinth; the foragers will eventually find a passage after wandering through some nooks and crannies and then remember the labyrinth path for at least four days. Even if they have to stay put due to bad weather, ants have a good sense of time and effectively use it.

Ants communicate effectively using various methods. They hear by measuring vibrations, and some ants make sounds by stridulation, a characteristic chirping produced with the stomach and jaw segments. Sounds can be used to communicate with colony members or even with other species. But perhaps the main communication method is the smell. Ants leave pheromone traces on the soil surface, which are easily picked up by other individuals. In species that feed in groups, foraging ants mark the trail on their way back to the colony. Other ants follow this trail and reinforce it with their pheromones when they go back to the colony with food. When the food source runs out, the returning ants leave no new trails, and the smell slowly dissipates. This behavior helps the ants cope with environmental changes. Successful trails are followed by more ants who reinforce the best routes. Ants also exchange pheromones with each other by mixing them with food, thereby transmitting information within the colony, allowing other ants to determine which task group other family members belong to.

Ants have also mastered agriculture, with some species practicing lower agriculture by growing coral mushrooms, yeast breeding, and higher agriculture by growing mushrooms and creating entire mushroom gardens. Leafcutter ants arrange entire mushroom plantations and use finely chopped leaves as a substrate. Ants bring the leaves to the colony, cut them into small pieces to use as fertilizer, and protect mushrooms from harmful bacteria. Ants also practice animal husbandry, breeding aphids for their honeydew, a valuable high-energy food. Ants graze aphids on nearby plants, taking care of them and protecting them from other predators, milking them for excess nectar.

However, despite their remarkable achievements, ants are not without their weaknesses. For example, they can get trapped in a "death circle" due to an error in their pheromone trail marking system, leading to exhaustion and death. Additionally, ants can become victims of a parasitic fungus, Cordyceps unilateralis, which infects them, controls their behavior, and eventually kills them, using them as a means of spore dispersal.

In conclusion, ants are fascinating creatures with complex social structures and behaviors. Their ability to communicate, farm, and adapt to their environment is remarkable. The parallels between ant society and human civilization are intriguing, highlighting the complexity and sophistication of both. Ants' ability to overcome challenges and work together is inspiring, showcasing the power of collective intelligence in nature.

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