Ants and Humans are more similar than you think
When I started writing about animals, I thought I wrote to educate people so that they would become kinder and more scientific. Now I realize that I write as dancers and singers do, for myself. My admiration for the universe and all its creatures unfolds itself week by week. I write because I cannot help myself.
Imagine a world of tiny beings that is almost identical to ours. Where the dominant species mirrors every action of the human being – with far greater elegance, intelligence and success. Such a world exists – the world of ants.
I have written about them several times. They build tunnels and houses with engineering skills to monitor the weather, have castes and classes, go to war, pick up slaves that service them forever, keep guards outside their colonies, run farms and grow food for the colony in well organized and fertilized fields, run kitchens and messes where ants gather to eat, have bedrooms and cleaning services, make boats to cross rivers, train soldiers and workers and housemaids. They have classes with teachers. I can’t think of anything they don’t do that is like us – except better. I am sure if we had a machine to monitor their language we would find it as complex as our own with different languages in different colonies. I am sure we will discover what they do for amusement as well – imagine tiny projectors showing films!
Now a study, done by Clint Penick, a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University and co-lead author with researchers at Oxford and Arizona Universities of “A simple behavioural model predicts the emergence of complex animal hierarchies” published in The American Naturalist. shows the electoral process of ants and how different levels of society are formed.
When an Indian Jumping Ant colony’s queen dies the colony is thrown into disarray for some time, while the process for making the new queen and the new Darbar, the new hierarchy of Important Ants, goes on. It has the same murderous tense quality that our elections have. As the dust settles, the new hierarchies form.
When an queen dies her smell, which pervades the ant’s colony, stops. Workers, who are the bottom of the hierarchy and cannot have children (though they have reproductive systems), quickly gather at the centre of the colony and form a circle around the larvae and pupae. This is how it goes: “A single ant starts beating another ant’s head with its antennae, and in no time half the ants in the colony are engaged in antennal fencing duels. Slaps escalate to head biting, and ‘police’ ultimately intervene and restore order.”
The ants are beating each other up for only one reason: the top of the pecking order is the one who lays eggs and this fighting is to determine who gets to lay eggs and who doesn’t. And after months of conflict (where no one dies!) 10 to 15 top candidates emerge and they transform into gamergates; their brains shrink, their abdomens fill with ovaries and their expected lifespans grow from a maximum of six months, to up to five years. The group will equally share egg-laying power and pick up the late queen’s sceptre.
The new colony order is like ours, new layers of dominance formand, in this complex social arrangement, hierarchies form that are also seen in humans, dolphins and apes.
During the fighting, which is in the form of organized tournaments – just like the debates of the American candidates – the ants indulge in three behaviours: biting, policing and duelling with their antennae.
When the ants bite, they lock their jaws around the head of another ant, and the winner establishes its dominance. Dopamine levels change as a result of winning or losing, with winners getting a hormone boost that will give them an edge in the next confrontation, called the winner effect. It also activates their reproductive system, while, on the other hand, losers’ reproductive capabilities shut down.
As more ants drop out of the tournament, subordinate ants start “policing” less dominant ants that refuse to give up. Groups of five ants will restrain challengers for up to two days — enough time to bring the hormone down and remove the individual from the competition.
These gangs of subordinate ants have decided whom they want as their leader – the way party goondas do in villages.
Look at the difference – and predictability- of the results of the “election”. When ants only bit each other a hierarchy emerged that was more democratic and shared power — a bureaucratic structure of dominant individuals with a CEO at the top and power filtering by rank down to the intern worker queens or Gamergates.
When biting and strong policing were used, a dictatorship emerged — a single ant on top, with all other ants sharing the same rank of lowly workers, and the goonda ants formed the honour bodyguard. Does this sound familiar?
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