Solid, Liquid, Ants

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A new video from Georgia Tech illustrates the remarkable behavior of ants when bundled together into a mass:

Megan covered a similar video back in 2013. Also from our archives, Rose Eveleth highlighted a mysterious ant video of a different sort:

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.

An even more incredible example of this behavior was recorded just a few months ago:

From Matt Simon’s writeup at Wired:

The scientists who took the video and reported the behavior earlier this month in Insectes Sociaux suggest that these ants may be pushing, pulling, or even lifting the millipede to reduce friction for their comrades pulling in the chains. If the foragers were a corporation, you’d call this synergy, then punch yourself in the face for calling it synergy. But really, the ants form a superorganism that’s more powerful than the sum of its parts.

Now, ants are no strangers to linking their bodies together to solve problems. Weaver ants, for instance, grasp each other to pull a leaf in on itself. They then grab a larva, which releases a silk that seals the leaf edges together to form a nest. And fire ants will band together to survive floods, forming rafts of bodies they use to literally ride out the storm, sometimes for weeks. But the millipede-hunting Leptogenys ants are the first known to have evolved the ability to link together to drag a kill.