Ant life: Mourning and the unwanted burial

Ants: The superior civilization? At the risk of stating the obvious, there are some pretty big differences; nonetheless, a couple of quotes from the February 26 review of the follow up to the Pulitzer Prize winning 1991 book from Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson stood out. Check out this connection between colony behavior and CO2:

Some of the most fascinating insights into ants have come from researchers who measure the amount of carbon dioxide given off by colonies. This is rather like measuring the respiration rate in humans in that it gives an indication of the amount of work the superorganism is doing. The researchers discovered (perhaps unsurprisingly) that colonies experiencing internal conflict between individuals seeking to become reproductively dominant produce more CO2 than do tranquil colonies where the social order is long established. But extraordinarily, they also discovered that about three hours after removing a queen ant, the CO2 emissions from a colony drop. 'Removing the queen thus has a clear effect on worker behavior, apparently reducing their inclination to work for the colony,' the researchers concluded. While it's dangerous to anthropomorphize, it seems that ants may have their periods of mourning just as we humans do when a great leader passes from us.

"Mourning"? I have doubts about it. But given our propensity to bury bad news, this humorous quote highlighted one certain similarity between colonies and human society.

However, ants clearly are fundamentally different from us. A whimsical example concerns the work of ant morticians, which recognize ant corpses purely on the basis of the presence of a product of decomposition called oleic acid. When researchers daub live ants with the acid, they are promptly carried off to the ant cemetery by the undertakers, despite the fact that they are alive and kicking. Indeed, unless they clean themselves very thoroughly they are repeatedly dragged to the mortuary, despite showing every other sign of life.

Bert Hölldobler, who coauthored The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies along with famed entomologist E.O. Wilson, will be at the 2009 IdeaFestival in Louisville.


Wikipedia: Superorganism