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The Social Life of Ants

Just like your chatty granny and your grumpy uncle, animals are either social or not. The list of solitary animals is long and includes not just your uncle but similar creatures like grizzly bears and polecats. But ants are classified as social creatures because they live in structured nest communities and their societies exhibit high levels of organization. Ants cooperate in raising their brood, practice a division of labor, and perform specialized tasks.

In ant society a chosen few are queens, the matriarchs of the community. Queens lay thousands of eggs and ensure the survival of the species. Most other ants are wingless, sterile female workers who, among other tasks, forage for food, care for the queen’s offspring, maintain the nest, and provide protection. Then there are male ants whose sole purpose is to breed and quickly die.

While this all might sound like a simple system, ant society is mindboggling complex. This is especially true in “supercolonies,” like the one found on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. This supercolony consists of 45,000 interconnected underground nests covering 670 acres. Within those nests, one million queens are tended to by over 360 million workers. Researchers have found that all reproduction and food distribution is exchanged in an orderly fashion within the massive colony. And it’s all done without language, that we know of.

The Hokkaido supercolony is one of several. A vast colony of Argentine ants stretches 3,700 miles along the Mediterranean coast in Europe. In the United States, the “Californian large” Argentine ant supercolony extends 560 miles along the state’s coast.

While ants are usually very territorial, those within the supercolonies are very tolerant of one another. Scientists have even introduced individual ants from supercolonies the U.S., Europe, and Japan and found it was like a big, six-legged United Nations. The researchers, whose day job includes staging ant fights, matched ants in one-on-one contests to judge their belligerence. Instead of fighting to the death, the supercolony ants rubbed antennae and never fought or even ran away from one another. The ants acted as if they were from the same colony despite the fact that they were separated by thousands of miles of ocean.

As it turns out, the ants were genetically related and were able to recognize one another by their chemical compositions. The only other animals to have taken over such a huge swath of the planet are human beings. And as ants within the supercolonies continue to mingle, you can be sure they are united in one mission; to conquer the earth for antkind. And it seems, due to their social lives, the ants are well on their way.