Tuesday, May 12, 2009

slave-making ants

I’m a little more than half-way through Darwin’s Origin of Species and I came across, in the chapter on instinct, a fascinating account of slave-making ants. Who knew?

I’ll forego a feeble attempt to do justice to Darwin’s description of this phenomenon and just quote him instead:
This remarkable instinct was first discovered in the Formica (Polyerges) rufescens by Pierre Huber, a better observer even than his celebrated father. This ant is absolutely dependent on its slaves; without their aid, the species would certainly become extinct in a single year. The males and fertile females do no work. The workers or sterile females, though most energetic and courageous in capturing slaves, do no other work. They are incapable of making their own nests, or of feeding their own larvae. When the old nest is found inconvenient, and they have to migrate, it is the slaves which determine the migration, and actually carry their masters in their jaws. So utterly helpless are the masters, that when Huber shut up thirty of them to work, they did nothing; they could not even feed themselves, and many perished of hunger. Huber then introduced a single slave (F. fusca), and she instantly set to work, fed and saved the survivors; made some cells and tended to the larvae, and put all to rights. What can be more extraordinary than these well-ascertained facts?