Empire of the Ants

We never saw it coming. The world is being taken over by Argentina.

Of all the world’s invasive species, the Argentine ant is one of the most pernicious. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I have no great love for ants. I think of them more as a system than an animal. Ants are eusocial creatures with no concept of the individual. Though my political beliefs range into the Socialist, ants seem to me to be a vision of collectivism gone horribly wrong, a nightmare out of 1984: sterile females work tirelessly and lay down their lives in zombified subservience to an engorged hive queen who breeds with mindless drone slaves, while watched over by genetically modified soldiers sporting oversized mandibles. Fascinating as they may be, I believe that ants stand against everything that is inherently human. Also, they keep getting into my Triscuits.

Ants’ “superorganism” system works so well that they have become the dominant family of animals on Earth. In sheer biomass, all the ants in the world outweigh all the humans in the world combined, and may account for up to 25% of all terrestrial animal biomass. Humans tend to think of themselves as the Master Species of this here planet, but I tell you: the Earth belongs to the ants. (Cue James Brown singing, This is an ant’s world…) Case in point: If humans vanished tomorrow, only a handful of domesticated livestock species would suffer, provided we turned off the lights and the nuclear reactors on our way out. But if there were some mysterious Rapture of the Ants tomorrow, the global ecosystem would be in ruins. Ants have made themselves essential in some way to almost every terrestrial plant and animal on Earth.

The only thing that seems to limit the size of their perfect Trotskyite city-states is their constant warfare. Because social animals tend to help and defend those most closely related to them (called Kin Selection Theory), ants — which are genetically and functionally only extensions of their mother, the queen — will sniff out the chemical signatures on ants from other genetic colonies and destroy them. And here’s where the Argentine ant matters: outside of South America, it will fight other species, but not its own kind. It treats nearly all Argentine ants as brothers from different mothers. (Or, you know, sisters from different misters, or whatever.) And this nearly unique case of cooperation between genetically distinct colonies, aided by their penchant for hitchhiking on our airplanes, boats, and cars, has led to the formation of “super-colonies,” “mega-colonies,” and eventually, complete global domination.

In 2000, a colony of Argentine ants was discovered along the coast of Southern Europe, stretching over 3,700 miles from the tip of Northern Spain all the way to Northern Italy. The colonizing ants have changed their organization to adapt to their new surroundings, creating an interlinking network of colonies and anthills that cooperate with each other. If you took an Argentine ant in Argentina and moved it 20 feet to the hill of another colony, it would get ripped limb from limb. But if you took an Argentine ant from Barcelona and put it in an Argentine ant hill in Monaco, it would be welcomed like family. Millions of nests, millions of queens, billions of individuals, and one colony.

The only explanation is that they are genetically similar, but strangely, the phenomenon can’t be explained by the genetic “bottleneck effect” of being all related to the same displaced queen. They’re close, then, but not that close; colonies aren’t genetically identical, but it seems like the chemical signatures on their antennae that allow them to recognize each other aren’t evolving fast enough to inspire warfare. It’s like Crips from both L.A. and New York: though they answer to different leaders, they refuse to fight each other because they both wear blue.

Empires, however, have a way of becoming too successful, and collapsing. As you can surmise from the graphic above, the super-colony has another, smaller super-colony rival in Southern Spain. These other ants are genetically different, and war between the two has already arisen. So it’s safe to say that the main European super-colony will eventually branch off into genetically distinct tribes, and start falling on each other’s swords… but not before the Argentines have killed off or seriously pushed back most of Europe’s 20 indigenous ant species, and the animals that depend on them.

What’s more, the European super-colony turns out to be part of a larger mega-colony, with similar super-colonies in Japan and California as well. In other words, an Argentine ant from San Diego will do fine with an anthill in Lisbon or Hiroshima. By following us, the same family of ants has conquered thousands of miles of coastline on three continents separated by huge oceans, and they’re not evolving fast enough to split into new subspecies. One giant hive mind, answering to a non-existent Queen of queens, spreading out over the entire planet and destroying all rival species in its path. If human history is a picnic, it’s about to get ruined.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

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