Saturday, 2 August 2014

Why Ants Carry Their Dead and Other Fascinating Facts

I have always been fascinated by ants. How they are social beings that operate in armies and live in colonies, and how they have made it to the Qur'an there is a full ‘Sura’ (Chapter) named after them. And since where I am staying now there are lots of ants, I got to observe them closely and even film their behaviour on camera.  

Actually, ants and I go way back. Once when I was 20 and camping somewhere in Sinai, I happened to squash a tiny teeny one and kill it. Since I was tripping on LSD, this was phenomenally touching. It made me think about how other creations look at us. For this deceased ant, I might have been some kind of god with a giant foot. I even thought about how the ant's friend who had witnessed the painful squashing could go along to tell the tale of the god with the giant foot to the rest of the colony. The colony will then try to find reasons as why this had happened, making them all ‘believe’...or not. Since then, I think 17 times before killing one.

One weird thing I got to observe multiple times is an ant carrying the corpse of a dead ant. I have seen it in the deserts of Egypt, while camping in Canada, and here in the U.S just a few days ago. Naturally, they are all from different species. This has finally got me curious so I wanted to know what's the story behind it. I did some research and here is what I found about that peculiar behaviour.

Apparently, the transport of dead nest mates is a stereotyped behaviour found in most ants. We know how they are an intricately organized species that live in
colonies. Each colony is divided into three castes — males, workers and queens — and each caste handles a different task. So each individual insect has a certain social role to play. Some are responsible for finding food and carrying it away, some dig to make homes in the dirt, others handle and protect the li'l ones. And, just like an actual human army, some take out the trash, which includes removing the dead.

Those ‘cleaners’ carry the cadavers to a refuse pile outside of the colony, usually far from the nest entrance. Ants are smart creatures, they know about bacteria and other fungus invasions which result from the decay. So they remove them to the ‘graveyard’ to prevent diseases, as well as to keep the colony clean of refuse. Simply because it's their job to keep the well-being of their society.

Also, a scent trail left behind attracts potential enemies that could eat and destroy the whole colony. So the act of cleaning and clearing could be performed for protection.

On a parallel note, I shot a few videos of how ants react to smoke. When I blew the smoke in one specific area, the ants in the surrounding areas also sped up and frantically changed direction as a reaction to the stimulus the threat showing that they must have a way for communicating.

My curiosity has once again lead me to look it up, and I found that it is scientifically established that ants communicate. They do so through sending sound frequencies. They use this language to alarm and warn other ants from danger, which is the smoke is my little experiment here.
According to the scientific encyclopedia, ants produce high-pitch chirps called stridulations by rubbing together specialized body parts. They also communicate
through scented chemicals, the pheromones, in a process called chemoreception.

Reflecting further upon the above, there is no way that all these armies of ants can sustain their complex societies if there was no communication between them. This system of division of labour and task partitioning requires communicating. Queens give orders and members share information about sources of food and potential dangers. Communication is needed for the colony to retain memories of previously rewarding locations; also to select among locations of different profitability.

That said, communicating appears to be
essential for ants to reach such complexity, versatility, and success.

All animals communicate. Most of the time we know nothing about it. In the case of ants, one can realize that through simple observation. It took me a few days in the garden to notice that the smoke I'm blowing ignite an alarm between the ants that are far from the smoke. This was a sign that there is some kind of communication which I could not see, hear, or feel myself with my limited senses.

Now here are some jaw-dropping ants facts for you...

  • Ants have evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the mid-Cretaceous period between 110 and 130 million years ago.
  • There is an estimate of over 10 quadrillion ants on the planet. 
  • Almost every ant you have seen in your life is probably female; if ants have no wings they are females.
  • Every year a new species of ant is discovered! Until today there are formal scientific names to about 14,000 species and subspecies. The estimated number of total ant species is more than 22,000. 
  • The total weight of all the ants on Earth is estimated to be equal to that of all humans. Scientists believe they comprise from 15 to 25 percent of the earth's animal biomass. Seriously.
  • Ants inhabit every continent on earth except Antarctica, Greenland, and a few islands in Hawaii and Polynesia. The reason behind their success is their ability to form organized societies and communicate with each other.

What I find quite interesting as well is how more than a millennium ago it was mentioned in the Qur'an that prophet
Sulaiman (Solomon) had an army of ants that could communicate with each other. As mentioned earlier, there is a full chapter on ants (Al-Naml), among chapters on other animals; The Cow (Al-Baqarah), The Cattle (Al-Anaam), The Bee (Al-Nahl), The Spider (Al-Ankaboot), and The elephant (Al-Feel).

Some YouTube videos (like this One) that I found about ants communicating
had titles like Miracle of the Qur'an”. And this is my two Bermudian cents about that.

As much as it's fascinating that there is a full chapter on ants in the 1000-year-old Qur'an because that shows the significance of these magnificent creatures and how much of a life wonder they are, as much as I think there are much worthier topics’ in the Qur'an that could be regarded as miracles, or perhaps, enigmas.

Even though it does require certain observation skills to know that ants communicate between them, especially such a long time ago, but I see that explaining the cosmos and the formation of the baby in the womb would be more suitable examples to be regarded as mysterious wonders.

Funnily enough, in the many YouTube comments one finds
the absolutists who take religions literally seeing this scientific discovery as a proof that ants speak’ like us, and, like the ones in Solomon's army, they have actual conversations. In Arabic too. O' well. 


At the end, ants are magnificent creatures and I think we still have a lot to learn about, and from. Knowing that there are 10 quadrillion of them and that they weight as much as us Earthlings, I wonder if one day those thousands of different species learn how to communicate on a large scale, would they take over humanity like we see in apocalyptic movies.

Who knows, perhaps there is a deeper meaning in carrying their deads which we still have yet to discover. Perhaps with this daily exposure to dead mates, they have already developed a sense of their own mortality, or are on their way.

There is so much we don't know about this world and the others and I find that to be enchanting.


And the one after about peacefully kicking ants out of the kitchen: Guiding Ants Out Of The Kitchen...Alive

Article published on Conscious Life News

An ant's transparent abdomen shows the colour of the food they have eaten

An authentic ant that skips school is a truant  :}
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