AMAZING ANTS AND THE LEGACY OF E.O. WILSON
By Jordan Wernyj – Deputy Visitor Services Manager
If you happen to encounter one of the 50+ ant types in Britain, observe their hurried activities and interactions with each other. One cannot help but compare the complex functioning of an ant society to our own, and consider its advanced societal structures in relation to humans. The way an ant colony organises itself is highly industrial and commanding, subdivided into castes including queens, males, and worker ants, the latter of which contribute to their colony through roles as diverse as tending to larvae, foraging, or attacking rival threats.
Having worked at the Museum of Natural History for a few months, my interactions with specimens and discussions with the entomology department have reignited an intrigue in myrmecology, the study of ants. This began with locating the ant case on the Upper Gallery on the south side of the Museum. You can find fantastic British insects on display, selected from our ginormous British Insect Collection. Specimens include Lasius fuliginosus (Jet Black Ant) and Formica saunguinea (Slave-Making Ant) —the latter aptly named given its tendency to attack ants from other colonies and force its victims to work for them.
Outside of the Museum, a viral video of a group of ants following each other in a circle led me to the even more surprising discovery that ants can mistakenly cause their own demise. The name of this circular march is an ‘ant mill’ which, rather morbidly, is a circle of death. Ants use pheromones to communicate with and organise each other during normal behaviour. However, these chemical trails can be lost, which for worker or army ants that leave the colony to forage or attack, it is a prominent risk. Ants follow one another, and if the leading ant loses the trail and begins to follow an ant behind, a rotational spiral motion occurs. Sadly, an ant mill can cause tragic consequences, with either the ants picking up the trail back to the colony, or continuing in the rotation until they die of exhaustion.
Having expressed curiosity in myrmecology, an entomologist at the Museum provided me with a fascinating book Tales of the Ant World by Edward O. Wilson. Wilson’s enlightening work within myrmecology and ecology gave him the nickname ‘Dr. Ant’. Wilson, highlighting his scholarship on the ant species Camponotus femoratus – one of the most aggressive in the world.
These intriguing invertebrates are located within the depths of the Amazon rainforest and are largely arboreal, territorial, and scary! Nonetheless, the intrepid Wilson decided to test out the ants’ offensive tactics. A mere brush up against an inhabited tree would provoke swarming formations, snapping mandibles and, if the pain wasn’t already discomforting enough, a release of formic acid. Edward Osbourne Wilson sadly passed away on Boxing Day 2021, while I was halfway through reading this book. It is a fascinating work that not only informs the reader of ant facts, but tells the most interesting story of a myrmecologist’s life and his discovery of ant species.