Killing Zombies and Growing Mushrooms: 9 Unusual Things Ants Can Do

1. Fight zombies

Ant infected with Cordyceps. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the tropics of Brazil, Australia, Florida and Japan, there is a curious fungus – cordyceps . It was he who inspired the creators of the game Last of Us, inventing their zombies. When the spores of the fungus enter the body of some insect – most often an ant – they germinate into its nervous system, and the cordyceps takes control of the body.

The fungus forces the ant to look for the best place for its growth – with the right temperature and humidity. Then he takes him there, orders the insect to attach itself to some leaf with the help of its jaws, and kills it. And then it grows calmly, scattering spores on new ants that accidentally run past.

But the insects are not going to put up with such a fungal scourge and fight the zombie fungus to the best of their ability.

When they see an infected comrade, they immediately kill it and take it to the graveyard so that the fungus cannot spread its spores. If the cells on the shell did not have time to germinate under the cuticle, the ants carefully cleanse their comrade, saving his life.

But the most interesting thing is that when you need to collect food in those places where cordyceps grows, insects send there only the oldest individuals from their colony. Apparently, so that it would not be a pity to eliminate them in case of infection. Such is the ant pragmatism.

2. Explode in the name of an anthill

The ant species Camponotus saundersi, which lives in Malaysia and Brunei, has a very unusual defense mechanism. If predatory insects attack an anthill, soldiers of this species strain their abdominal muscles so much that their abdomen simply explodes.

At the same time, a sticky secret mixed with a caustic irritant from the stomach is sprayed around.

For this behavior, Camponotus saundersi is informally called kamikaze ants.

Sacrificing themselves, the insects literally glue the enemies of their colony to the ground, allowing their comrades to deal with them. This is the walking bomb.

3. Use your own head as a door

Ant covering the entrance with its head. Image: Alex Wild/Flickr

Insects of the genus Cephalotes from the tropics of Central and South America simply grow huge outgrowths on their heads , resembling a shield of chitinous armor. Because of this, they are called turtle ants.

When the entrance to the nest needs to be locked, these cuties literally plug it with their own heads, like corks. And they sit like that, not allowing anyone to pass.

If one of the gatherers returns to the colony from the surface, he pats the guard on the head. A soldier by touch recognizes who is his own and who is a stranger, and lets only trustworthy individuals in. A kind of ant face control.

Basically, these insects live on trees, equipping cavities inside the bark made by woodworm beetles. By the way, the swollen head not only allows them to close the passages in the anthill, but is also used as a parachute if the insect accidentally falls off the branch.

4. Turn into a barrel

Honey ants. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The so-called honey ants, which are found in Mexico and Australia, have found a very original way to store food for the future. They select their comrades in a special caste of such living barrels and feed lazy people to satiety – so that their bellies swell.

These insects accumulate liquid carbohydrates . Over time, they even stop walking – the belly swells so that their legs do not reach the ground.

When the worker gets hungry, he goes to the “barrel” and rubs this glutton with his mustache. He burps liquid food into his buddy’s mouth.

The taste of this liquid, apparently, is quite good and comparable to honey. Therefore, local residents periodically destroy nests and eat “barrels” just for a snack. The Mexicans even call them earth grapes.

5. Keep slaves

Ant-Amazon and his slaves. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There is such a genus of ants – Amazons, or polyergus. They have incredibly powerful saber-shaped jaws, with which they are able to fill up any insect of even the slightest degree comparable in size. However, this weapon makes the poor fellow unable not only to care for offspring and work in an anthill, but even to eat on their own.

How do the Amazons do it? Well, they just don’t work on their own. These insects specialize in warfare, raiding and hunting, and their slaves do the physical labor in the colony.

Amazons attack anthills of other species, kill guards and take out pupae, and sometimes a strange queen, so that she produces labor for them. Stolen insects, when they grow up, feed their invaders, literally putting food in their mouths. They also take care of their larvae and do all the dirty work.

At the same time, slaves sincerely believe that they are working for the benefit of their siblings, since the Amazons imitate the smell and pheromones of enslaved species.

True, sometimes this mechanism fails – scientists do not know why. And the enslaved ants brutally kill the offspring of the Amazons , which is why the colony of saber-toothed slave owners is dying out.

6. Farming

The queen is surrounded by workers in a mushroom garden. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Insects, which are given the names of fungus-grower ants and leaf-cutting ants, are able to grow their own food. These guys learned how to farm at least in the early Cretaceous – 60 million years ago.

They feed like this: they pick up especially juicy and high-quality leaves, bring them to the anthill and crush them with their jaws, making a nutrient substrate. Insects plant mycelium of special types of mushrooms in prepared soil and grow edible mold, which they then feed to their larvae. They themselves are not averse to eating it either.

In old anthills, whole mushroom gardens are formed over time.

Ants fertilize them with their own fecal fluid and put more and more new substrate. And when young queens want to leave the house to establish new colonies, they take pieces of mycelium with them. And their offspring continue to grow mushrooms in a new place.

Occupation is quite profitable , but dangerous. The fact is that other types of ants, such as Megalomyrmex, also love mushrooms, but do not know how to grow them. Therefore, they come to the colony to take away someone else’s crop.

Insects do not tolerate such impudence and desperately protect their property. And such raids turn into real ant wars for food.

7. And animal husbandry

Ants collect aphids. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Some species of ants hunt not only by growing mushrooms, but also by cattle breeding. They bring aphids, various caterpillars, mealybugs and other insects to their nests.

Using antennae, ants literally milk these delicious creatures, forcing them to secrete honeydew, a valuable source of sugars. Insects consume it themselves and give it to the larvae. In order for the “cash cows” to give more product, the ants feed and clean them, and when they establish new colonies, they carry their “pets” with them.

Some cunning insects, such as the beetle called Lomechusa pubicollis, have found an ingenious way to arrange their lives at someone else’s expense. They come to the anthills and release pheromones that make the insects think that this is one of their pets , useful for the colony.

Workaholics take the beetle inside, and it breeds, devouring ant offspring and begging food from its landlords. And they do not even think of attacking him. After waiting out the winter in a strange house, the beetle calmly walks away, leaving its inhabitants at a loss – and why did they keep this freeloader?

8. Trade your own offspring for booze

Video: Wikimedia Commons

The beetle from the point above simply penetrates the anthill and lives off the supplies there. But there are more unprincipled insects that use the most cunning ways to get enough at the expense of someone else’s naivety.

For example, the Japanese butterfly from the Lycaenidae family. It can be called an ant bootlegger without exaggeration.

Its caterpillar produces a special substance that causes an unprecedented surge of dopamine in ants and addiction. Insects that swallow this rubbish literally go crazy . They are ready to do anything just to get the next dose.

Crowding around the caterpillar, the ants lick it clean. When she ceases to secrete intoxicating juices, little hard workers begin to suffer furiously.

And in order to force the caterpillar to give them life-giving nectar again, they bring her own larvae to eat. Only after it is fed, the caterpillar mercifully agrees to sprinkle a new portion of the potion on the little drunkards.

9. Dance until they die

Video: GeoNaturalist / YouTube

Ants navigate the terrain with the help of the pheromones of their comrades: the scout goes forward, leaving marks from the glands behind him, and the rest move after him. But sometimes, for some reason, the ants lose their trail. And then they, not understanding where to go next, begin to move in a circle one after another until they die of hunger .

This is what happens when you rely too much on the collective mind and forget to grow your own brains.

Sometimes ant circles are really huge. Zoologist William Beebe in 1921 described a round dance, the length of which was about 370 meters. It took insects two and a half hours to complete one revolution in it.

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