A horde of ravenous cannibal ants has escaped confinement in a Soviet nuclear weapons bunker and it might just be the heartwarming story we all need in 2020.
Researchers discovered the phenomenon back in 2013 when conducting a study into bats who’d made their home in the bunker. While there, they found a ‘colony’ comprised only of worker ants, meaning that they had no way of reproducing. When the researchers returned in 2016, they were shocked to find that the number of ants there had grown significantly.
If they can’t reproduce and there’s no food, how is this possible? Well, the answer is that the ants turned to cannibalism. As MovieWeb explains:
As it turns out, the original nest was located over a ventilation pipe. When ants would fall down the pipe, they became trapped in the nuclear bunker with no light, no food, and no heat. So how did the population grow over the years in this void? As it turns out, they turned to cannibalism to survive. The weaker ants that fell down the pipe and did not survive were turned into food and researchers wanted to find out if these cannibal ants would leave their nuclear tomb, if given the chance.
“The survival and growth of the bunker ‘colony’ through the years, without producing own offspring, was possible owing to continuous supply of new workers from the upper nest and accumulation of nestmate corpses. The corpses served as an inexhaustible source of food which substantially allowed survival of the ants trapped down in otherwise extremely unfavorable conditions.”
So, why is this story of trapped cannibal ants so heartwarming? Well, the researchers left a board propped up allowing the ants to escape their prison and when they returned the following spring, they found that practically every cannibal ant had returned to the original colony, where they presumably continued out their happy ant existence of slavery to the Queen and unending toil.
Still, I bet the cannibal ants were getting some serious side-eye (side antenna?) from their buddies back on the surface. Those ants have seen some stuff.
But this is really a tale of unlikely survival in almost impossible circumstances and for that, I applaud the cannibal ants. As the researchers conclude: “The present case adds a dimension to the great adaptive ability of ants to marginal habitats and suboptimal conditions, as the key to understanding their unquestionable eco-evolutionary success.” Hail ants.