Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Architecture of Ant Society

This short blog looks at the way ant society functions, and how it is so similar to our own. This blog is loosely based on today's technology lecture, by Dan Kelly.


I've always been interested in the architecture that animals create. From termite mounds to beaver dams, animals have always been successful at changing the landscape around them to suit their needs. Ant colonies create huge underground cities, and I watched a documentary about this, part of which I have rediscovered on youtube. The documentary team pumped gallons of concrete into a disused ant colony, and once the concrete had dried, the surrounding soil was dug out to reveal the disused city - its many chambers, routes and networks:

(please watch!)

'There are sub-terranian highways connecting the main chambers, and off the main routes are side roads. The paths branch and lead to many fungus gardens and rubbish pits. The tunnels are designed to ensure good ventilation, and provide the shortest transport routes. Everything looks like it has been designed by an architect, a single mind'

The ant colony moved forty tons of soil to create this city, digging eight metres into the earth and building fifty metres of pathways... But aside from all the documentary's facts about the vast heights, lengths and weights of the city, I was much more interested in the fungus gardens and rubbish pits, and the ventilation systems the ants used to provide clean air eight metres underground. The more I read up on ant society, the more parallels I found between their society and our own.

Ants build houses and communal spaces, they build bridges, even boats. Their waste goes to waste disposal areas, and they farm (fungi) to provide food. They form symbiotic relationships with other insects and fungi, cooperating with other species to help the success of the colony. The baby ants are cared for by nursing ants; and if an ant is infected with an illness, it will be carried away far away to protect the overall health of the colony.

Ants also social-network. If one ant detects danger, it will release pheromones to the next ant, who will pass the message on (and on) until the whole colony is aware of any potential threat and can respond to it.

Ant society is not just limited to one city state either. Collaborations sometimes exist with nearby colonies, and this BBC news report lists a few 'mega-colonies' that exist around the world, whereby ant colonies can stretch for hundreds, even thousands of miles, and are made up of countless cities.

'It now appears that billions of Argentine ants around the world all actually belong to one single global mega-colony'

It's a strange feeling that beneath our feet lies a society nearly as developed as our own, in my opinion similar to early homosapien societies (such as the early Mayan/Incan), based on a class system, where everyone knew their rank in society and every action was ultimately intended to benefit the development of the whole community. Basic society requirements such as a place to live, a place to work, a ruler to rule, slaves to enslave, water and food needs, waste disposal, a place to be born, a place for the dead ... are common in both ant society and human society.

I really look forward to new discoveries about this mega-colony, and how the different city states function with one another.  Do ants only stay in their own cities? Do they receive promotions taking them to bigger cities? Do they even holiday in different cities within the colony? ...I really hope so.

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