Supercolonies Means Constant Warfare

We’re all very familiar with ants and know that they are social creatures who live in colonies. Some live in small colonies, some in large, and some in super colonies. The Argentine is, apparently, the place to study supercolonies. Here they occupy hundreds of square kilometers with billions of ant citizens (1).

The interesting thing about these supercolonies is, that as they spread out, they indulge in constant warfare at their periphery and don’t deign to fraternize (and thus interbreed) with their neighboring supercolonies.  These are not collections of separate nests, although the local density varies, but are one nation under, well, the sun. Of course, carrying out a census is no mean feat as pointed out by Lester and Gruber (2).

Now Discovery News has picked up this work and focuses on the similarities between these ant supercolonies and human societies (3). The thought out there is that as humans live in societies consisting of millions on up to billions we have  more things in common with ants than our primate cousins as the latter live in small groups.

Why does this matter? Well with huge societies there are lots of civic problems such as long distance communication and transportation of goods, public health, complex teamwork, animal domestication, slavery and warfare, to highlight a few mentioned.

Apparently, as Moffett observes, it is ants and humans that are the only two species to get into “full-blown warfare”(3). The key to their success is their communication system, which is chemically based, that is, the use of pheromones.

We, of course, eschew our chemical heritage, masking it heavily with antiperspirants, deodorants, perfumes and aftershaves, in favor of our smartphones and social networks. One wonders why the ant colonies choose not to interbreed so they don’t, like us, have the option to make love, not war. Maybe a good deodorant would help.

  1. M. W. Moffett, J. Behav. Ecol. (2012). DOI: 10.1093/beheco/ars043

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