Posted in Science & Nature

Slavemaker Ant

Slavery is considered one of the most inhumane acts in humanity’s history, where a group of people enslave another group of people to do their bidding in harsh conditions. Slavery is an interesting concept as at the cost of other members of your species, you can greatly increase the productivity of your own society. Some may argue that only humans are evil enough to enslave their own kind, but there is one other species that enslaves other animals: ants.

Certain species of ants, known as slavemaker ants, are known to enslave entire ant colonies to do the bidding of their own colony. The way slavemaker ants enslave colonies is as follows. First, a pregnant queen ant lies in front of an enemy nest after mating and feigns death. Scouts from the nest carry the “body” back to their queen so that she may devour the fallen enemy. When the two queens are left in the same room, the queen slavemaker ant springs back to life and proceeds to eviscerate the other queen ant. She then rolls around in her remains to coat herself in pheromones – the substance through which ants identify each other. The ants of the colony now believe the queen to be their own queen and serve her and her eggs. When the brood fully matures (only soldier ants), they swiftly overrun the nest and completely enslave the colony, forcing them to fill the role of the worker ants, which the slavemaker ants lack.

Eventually, the original slaves die out and the colony becomes short on worker ants (as the queen only produces soldier ants). To overcome this issue, the colony sends out massive raiding parties to attack other colonies, after which the ants steal the eggs and larvae of the captured colony to breed them into new slaves. Interestingly, it has been observed that slavemaker ants tend to attack the most defended nests, knowing that they contain the most eggs and larvae. There are variations on how the army attacks and raids a colony depending on the species. Some choose to launch a full-on assault, decimating the colony and leaving only the eggs and larvae. Some secrete chemical gases that force the colony to evacuate, leaving their young behind in the rush. In some cases, a fertilised queen ant will sneak into a raid and kill the queen ant in the midst of the battle, commandeering whatever is left of the colony following the raid.

One difference between human and ant slavery is that slave ants are not aware they are slaves. Since they have been brought up since birth to work for the colony, they simply believe that they are worker ants birthed by the queen. Thus, they have no objections to serving the colony as to them they are merely fulfiling their objectives. 

This type of interaction between species is known as social parasitism, where one group benefits and survives at the cost of another group. Interestingly, “parasitism” also suggests that slavemaker ants cannot survive without their host. The reason being, slavemaker ants are so specialised in infiltrating and raiding other colonies that they cannot feed themselves or construct a colony by themselves. Even their mandibles are evolved into perfect killing machines, so much that they cannot use it to feed (slave ants have to feed them). In some cases, it has even been observed that slave ants had to carry their masters from one colony to another.

Slavemaker ants enslave not because they are tough or superior, but because they are desperate and have adapted to this unique form of surviving. Thus, if there was an Abraham Lincoln ant, he would certainly kill his colony within one generation.

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