For most ant species, nothing spells apocalypse quite like the death of a queen. A colony stripped of its monarch, the group’s only fertile female and the sole source of eggs, quickly unravels, then dies—an entire society snuffed out. The captain does not go down with her ship; the ship goes down with her captain.
Indian jumping ants do not abide by such dictatorial dramatics. They’ve evolved a work-around to indefinitely forestall their colonies’ demise. Within hours of their queen’s death, female workers will begin to joust, fencing with their antennae, and nipping at each other’s heads. These dominance tournaments can last for more than a month, until, at long last, a dozen or so champions triumph. While the losers slink away to resume their workerly duties, the victors cast aside their former peasant status and become a new class of pseudo-royals called gamergates (no, not that kind). The queen phase of the colony ends, and the gamergate phase begins: Monarchy transforms into oligarchy, and new gamergates step up as each generation dies. In this way, “colonies can be immortal, theoretically,” Clint Penick, an entomologist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, told me. They have been, so far, in the labs where he’s studied them.
The consequences of these tiny tussles range from the sociopolitical to the molecular. In earning the title of gamergate (pronounced gamm-ər-gayt), a female ant gains nearly exclusive rights to her colony’s reproductive responsibilities; she is among the very few of her sisters that can fertilize their eggs with the sperm of their brothers, the only available males. The transition rewires worker ants, altering their behavior and physiology until they become docile, nursery-bound “egg-laying machines,” Penick said. Gamergates stop leaving the nest. They lose their food-foraging chops and the will to hunt, relegating themselves instead to the darkness of their underground chambers, where they churn out eggs. They feast exclusively on the paralyzed prey served to them by workers. Normally these ants leap at assailants when disturbed—the classic “jumping” behavior that earned the species its name—but when confronted by intruders, gamergates cower and hide. Even their bodies reprioritize. The ants’ life span extends from six or seven months to three years or more. Their venom glands recede, and their ovaries swell to about five times their original size; the ants become, in a sense, perpetually pregnant.