Royal undertakers of the ant world

Ants are known by turns as tiny industrious creatures, pests, and amazing team workers. But a new study shows they are also quite the little funeral directors.

Ant queens are special. Not only in name, but in nature. So special that they generally stay away from any tasks deemed to pose a risk to their health. Tasks such as burying the dead. But new research conducted by scientists at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria has revealed that in situations where two ant queens co-found a colony and one dies before the first workers report for duty, the other one slips into the role of undertaker.

Global Ideas | 05.04.2016

More specifically, this means they observed behavior such as biting and burying the regal corpse, possibly as a means of preventing the transmission of pathogens. The study, which was published in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, found that biting and burial implied the remaining queen was seven times more likely to survive.

A healthy queen equals a healthy colony

The study on the behavior of black garden ant queens, which regularly form colonies in pairs, revealed that if they shared a single chamber when one died, 74 percent of the remaining healthy insects would bite the deceased into pieces. Slightly fewer — 67 percent — would then go on to bury the dismembered body.

Read more: The superpowers of Costa Rica's leaf-cutter ant

In cases where the two queens did not share a single chamber, only 22 percent bit and buried the dead, while 78 percent removed the body from the nesting chamber.

Avoiding illness is important for ant queens, because, as the authors explained, if they are fighting infection, their reproductive success could be compromised, and with it, the success of the entire colony.

Ants - more social than previously thought

Termites for breakfast

The African Matabele ant primarily has termites on its menu. Two to four times a day, several hundred ants set out to hunt their prey. But not without consequences to themselves...

Ants - more social than previously thought

Fierce resistance

Matabele ants raid termites, killing their workers and hauling the prey back to their nests. Soldier termites show up, though, using their powerful jaws to fend off the attackers. Roughly every 50th to 100th ant gets injured during these combats. Often, termite soldiers bite off the ants' legs.

Ants - more social than previously thought

Triggering rescue

When an ant is injured in a fight, it excretes chemical substances. This is a call for its mates, who will carry the injured insect back to the nest, where it can recover. A German research team of the University of Würzburg have observed this rescue behavior for the first time.

Ants - more social than previously thought

Unbelievably social

Ants live in huge colonies of thousands or even millions of animals. That's partly why researchers were surprised to see them rescuing other ants. It is the first time they had observed such a behavior in invertebrates. Researchers used to think that one individual wouldn't count for much in such a huge ant community.

Ants - more social than previously thought

Jointly strong in masses

One single ant might be tiny, but many ants together can form impressively big piles. In 2011, researchers observed for the first time that fire ants crowd together to form rafts when they sense that water levels are rising.

Ants - more social than previously thought

Small but powerful

Even if they are tiny, ants can carry objects that weigh about 10 times their own body weight. Some species, like this red wood ant can, manage even heavier things of up to 30 to 50 times its own body weight.

Ants - more social than previously thought

Assertive insects

Ants even keep plant lice as pets. They feast on the sugary feces that the lice discard. In return, the ants defend the lice against enemies. However, there are researchers who say this is less a symbiosis and more like slavery. The ants keep the herds of lice together through the use of force.

Ants - more social than previously thought

Fascinating!

It's incredible what ants can do. Researchers are discovering ever more about these social insects. And with 16,000 ant species exist worldwide - and all of them different - there is a lot more to discover.