Forget swarms of nanobots taking over the world—if something is going to band together to rise against humans, my money is on ants. Look at this video of them forming a chain to move something way bigger than any individual ant. Humans, faced with the same task, would probably devolve into trying to invent some kind of drone to do this for them.
To find out what’s going on here, I sent the video to Terry McGlynn, an entomologist at California State University at Dominguez Hills. “Okay, here’s the deal,” he wrote to me in an email. “This video, somewhere from Southeast Asia, shows a species of Leptogenys ants pulling along a large prey item (sure looks like a millipede) in a very long daisy chain, like they’re doing a tug of war.”
McGlynn says that what’s surprising about this video is that it’s a particular kind of behavior that ant experts haven’t seen before. It’s not that they haven’t seen ants work together to carry stuff or do things—there are all kinds of ways that ants band together to move or make things—but rather that they haven’t seen anything quite like this. The daisy-chain system you see in this video is new to them.
Helen McCreery, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, recently published a paper on all kinds of cooperative transport strategies in ants. In it she explains that at least 40 genera of ants work together to transport things, from two ants grasping something together to weaver ant workers who band together to “collectively carry birds, bats and snakes vertically up tree trunks.”
But McCreery says that this video shows something different. "To me, this behavior seems to be different from what's been observed in other ants (including the weaver ants) in an important way," she wrote to me in an email. "These Leptogenys are moving their prey by grasping onto ants, instead of all grasping onto the prey itself. One could argue that the chains occur because ants just grab onto anything attached to the prey they are trying to move, but I don't think that's what's going on here. Ants are very good at telling the difference between one of their sisters (another ant in the colony) and anything else. In my view, that makes this daisy chain behavior very different from other documented cooperative transport."
Alex Wild, a nature photographer and blogger, found another video of similar behavior:
Wild also points out that it would be nice to know more about who took this video and where, but that that information might be hard to find.
The virality of the video also illustrates both the good and the bad about the internet. The good, of course, is that this fascinating ant behavior found its way in front of scientists who otherwise might not have seen it. On the other hand, the viral nature of the video means that actual person who filmed it is drowned out among the hundreds of uncredited, unsourced copies. Securing the information about where and when the video was taken, and verifying the species, is going to be difficult. This is one reason why crediting sources online is important. Lose the credit, lose the data.
With millions of cameras pointed at the natural world, something new like this is bound to be caught on tape at some point. "It’s not a surprise, per se, that we discover new things,” McGlynn told me. “The world still is mostly mysterious, after all. But when there are hundreds and hundreds of professional myrmecologists around the world, who spend their lives looking at the ground and watching ants, it still ends up surprising us when we see something new that is so overt and cool."