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The Verge Review of Animals: ants

The Verge Review of Animals: ants

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This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

Elon Musk says he’s afraid of super-intelligent artificial intelligence from the future, but it’s already here, and it has already taken over the planet. Yes, I’m talking about ants.

In prior animal reviews, we’ve pointed out how animals like cats and rats have successfully covered the planet, but ants, insects of the Formicidae family, really are everywhere. Unless you’re standing on a polar ice cap, you are very close to a bunch of ants right now. Probably tens of thousands of ants. There are so many ants we really have no idea how many there are — leading some scientists to come up with crazy-sounding estimates, like that ant species average 15-20% of the terrestrial animal biomass. There are as many as 10 billion billion ants out there, right now, doing ant things.

It would take forever to go through all those ant things, but I want to focus on one: ants run damn effective governments. I'm interested in this as an American, since my own government appears to cross a new rubicon toward self-destruction every week. There’s a lot we can learn from ants.

Ants have had 130 million years to perfect ant government

Of course, we’ve had little more than 200 years to perfect our system of government, while ants have been working on it since they evolved from distant wasp-like relatives up to 130 million years ago. That’s plenty of time to reach perfection, and ant societies, perhaps more than those of any other animal group on the planet, appear to be perfectly organized. Watch any video about ants at work, and you’ll feel like you’re watching the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The group is so important to ant colonies that we often recognize all the ants as a single organism — a "superorganism." Massive ant colonies thrive because of broad and sophisticated cooperation across a number of specialized jobs. There are workers, breeders, soldiers, and in many ant species, specializations within the archetypes! Leafcutter ants, for instance, have insane productivity because they have a specialized supply chain: bulky cutters that scale the blades of grass and shear them with powerful mandibles, and speedy ants on the ground that transport flora back to the ant city. Somehow this cooperation is able to happen at an incomprehensible scale; a Leafcutter colony can have more than 10 million specialized workers that received their roles at birth. It’s the kind of flawless implementation of "from each according to his ability" that would make Karl Marx blush.

(In fairness, for ants it ought to read "according to her ability," since the working class in many large ant species consists of wingless females. The fertile male ants are called drones. See? I told you we have a lot to learn from ants.)

But before I scare half of you off with a Marxist ant fantasy, let me point out that the collective success of ants is owed in large part to democracy. Perhaps above all else, ants are most impressive because of their sophisticated forms of communication, including the exchange of chemical signals, touch, and even vibrations. When an ant colony has to move from one base to another, scouts leave chemical trails that can be picked up by their comrades. When enough ants decide a particular route is optimal, they will reinforce that trail with their own signals, eventually steering the group toward a popular destination. Humans have a word for that: voting. In the ant world, there are no political parties or hanging chads — just ants doing their jobs for the benefit of all their fellow ants.

Not all ants are chill

That’s not to say all ants live in a utopian dreamworld. Ants share many traits, but are not a monolith; there could be more than 20,000 species of ants, and many have unique behaviors. Each ant colony has its own foreign policy. Many species are extremely aggressive and will seek out and destroy neighboring ant colonies — or capture larvae and raise slave workers. Still, the most successful ant societies are cooperative.

At least one ant species, the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile), may outclass all the rest. The Argentine ant has been observed running what appears to be a world government: a global "mega-colony" that spans America, Europe, and Japan. The European supercolony alone spans 3,700 miles! In 2009, scientists discovered that these supercolonies were probably genetically related, and that their members are generally friendly when they meet. Rival colonies of Linepithema humile can even chill in each other’s forts without being attacked.

We’re more likely to live under the rule of the family Bush than the family Formicidae in the near future, but I’m willing to bet that ants will eventually raise their flag. Are you reading this, future ant overlords? Good, because I’m giving you a rating of 9.9/10. Please keep this in mind when it’s time to assimilate me.


Verge Score: 9.9


Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Great teamwork

  • Democratic exemplars

  • Great nature show subject

  • Cute? Yeah, sure

Bad Stuff

  • Fire ants