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We’ve Never Seen Ants Work Together Like This

We know that ants are incredible little creatures. They farm fungus, are in a constant battle with zombifying parasites, and even form water-proof balls that act like some goop from Brookstone. We also know that some species of ants can accomplish group projects as if the colony was taking arts and crafts.

In the now viral video below we see something that breaks the mold of organized yet chaotic ant cooperation. It looks like these ants have figured out a nearly perfect tug-of-war hunting strategy. Take a look:

It’s not unheard of for ants to work together to tackle prey and transport it back to the colony. What is amazing about this video is that the cooperation looks too orderly, even for ants. The six-legged chain gang didn’t form once, but multiple times along the body of the prey, suggesting that it wasn’t just complexity from chaos. It looks almost fake, but yet there they are.

I spoke with Dr. Jack Longino, professor and world-renowned ant man at the University of Utah to find out what the heck was going on. “Sure looks pretty strange,” Longino told me an in email. “The lines look so straight it looks like a hoax, someone messing with a video. But in general the ants look like they might be the genus Leptogenys.” This genus contains many species, Longino went on to explain, and some of them do in fact act like army ants and other ant species that deal with prey in large, organized groups. “In southeast Asia there is a group with marauding colonies that cruise over the surface in large groups, find prey (like the millipede in the video) and mob them,” Longino said.

“In ants with that sort of group raiding behavior, you do often see masses of ants cooperating (sort of) to bring large prey back to the nest. Some ants do form chains, linking legs to make bridges.”

Indeed, a few species designated roughly as “army ants” do work together to bring large prey back home, and more importantly some species in Leptogenys do as well. This method is actually more efficient for the group than if each ant just took a nibble of the prey and headed back to the colony. It’s literally a super-efficient technique — groups of ants can move prey larger than you’d expect if you simply looked at the collective strength of those individual ants.

So is this an invertebrate hoax? Amazingly, no. Despite Dr. Longino’s warranted skepticism, scientist and eminent ant photographer Alex Wild has uncovered another, higher quality video of the same daisy-chain behavior from a Cambodian beekeeper:

As Wild explains in his blog post on the video, this daisy-chain behavior might even be undocumented in the scientific literature. He also agrees with Dr. Longino, speculating that the ants are in the genus Leptogenys.

This really is the magic of social media at work. A low-quality video is uploaded on some corner of the web and before you know it ant researchers may have a whole new behavior to expand the literature with. “Regardless of documentation, daisy chaining raises some definitely unanswered questions and will make a fine Ph.D. thesis for some lucky student,” Wild concludes.

Dr. Longino agrees. Pointing me towards another video featuring a similar behavior, he can’t help but think how interesting this uncovered behavior is in the context of previous research.

“It sure is cool.”

IMAGE: Shattuck_53935, Leptogenys, Danum Valley, Sabah-web by Steve Shattuck

READ MORE: The Atlantic

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