Awesome Organism: Ants!

Specifically weaver ants!  Because I don’t actually know all that much about ants.  I just read a really fucking awesome article about them.  And yes, this is a day late and I apologize, but you gotta party hard on New Year’s.  Anyway I am back to blogging now for reals so yay :D


I want to start the year by passing on some of this awesome stuff from NatGeo about weaver ants because… a lot of becoming environmentally conscious is putting things in perspective.  People tend to forget that they are creatures, beasts, animals and all that, and that they exist suspended in a complex web of life without which they could not even be alive and which they affect with almost every choice they make.  The ebb and flow of life energy exists without boundaries.  You can’t compartmentalize and pretend that how you use it doesn’t have an impact.  But what does this have to do with ants?  Hmm…

I was fortunate enough to take an environmental ethics class in my first semester this past fall.  It was a fantastic experience because it really laid the foundation for everything else I’m going to learn.  It put everything in perspective and gave it all meaning.  It essentially answered the question, “Why?”  Why bother with the environmental movement?  Why work on behalf of animals and plants and ecosystems that have no apparent value to humans?  

As it turns out, there are a million ways to answer these questions philosophically, including the straightforward “we shouldn’t.”  But the most compelling arguments, I found, were the ones that explored the idea that there is really very little separating us from other forms of life, and that if we give ourselves the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (or, for the sake of this argument, the right to flourish) then we must give those rights to other beings also.  Other creatures feel pain, have interests, have a good of their own, they actively pursue creative means by which to survive, they experience fear at the hands of danger, etc.  (Even plants carry most of these types of key attributes.)  All these things are characteristics to which we as humans can relate.  And if you want to talk about intelligence as a criteria by which to exclude other life forms (which personally I think is rubbish and I don’t see how it’s of any moral relevance - intelligence is one of millions of adaptive traits and while it works fantastically well for us humans, it would be of no use whatsoever to most other life forms; life evolves to have traits that work well for survival, and the fact that a cheetah has evolved to be a fast runner rather than a mathematician is unarguably good for the cheetah - thus, to discriminate against other life forms on the basis of intelligence is to devalue them based on the fact that they are successful at evolution), don’t even bother.  The animal rights philosophers have an answer to that as with everything.  There are many animals that have intelligence greater than that of 1) children and 2) mentally disabled humans, and yet we as a society have determined that both children and mentally disabled people still have the same inalienable rights as other humans.  This means that we have already established that intelligence is not relevant to the possession of rights!

Now back to ants.  I think that these particular ants are one of the most fantastic illustrations of this concept - why other beings deserve the respect that we as a species give without a second thought to ourselves.  These things are crazy-insane-wtf bugs.  From my perspective, there’s no question about their claim to the right to life.  Check it out.

  1. Weaver ants live in nests suspended in trees - sometimes over a hundred such nests are needed for a single colony (which can reach half a million members) - that are made from leaves which the ants sew together (I’ll elaborate in a minute).  If nothing else, this means they can use tools -an ability that humans pride themselves on.
  2. They are cooperative with each other, which means that they can communicate.  They speak, essentially, with syntax by touching each other, using symbolic body language, and releasing pheromones.  The presence of syntax, the organization of words into phrases and sentences, is undeniably significant.  Until recently scientists thought that only humans possessed the ability to use syntax, and until even more recently thought that only other primates were capable.  But ants?  Now that’s something else. 
  3. They are so organized that they’re dangerous.  To protect from predators most of the ants swarm towards you and take up a vicious attack stance while simultaneously releasing formic acid into the air to burn you.  Meanwhile, others encase the queen with their bodies making an impenetrable shield.  To attack prey, they come in a group and each ant takes up a limb or antenna of the bug they are attacking.  Then they proceed to pull in opposite directions.  As if this weren’t enough, the remaining ants in the troop start to gnaw on the joints of the bug until it is not only longer living but is in manageable, bite sized pieces.  They are so effective at killing other bugs that farmers in Africa are using them as a powerful alternative to pesticides.
  4. They have shepherds.  Literally.  They herd other bugs as livestock.  This is fucking amazing.  They actually rear these bugs by hand for their own benefit.  And they don’t even eat them!  What they do is they carry these bugs to the absolute best feeding grounds in the area, protect them while they feed, and then harvest their “honeydew” excretions to eat.  Cow bugs!  This particular tidbit totally blows my mind.  The fact that they raise other bugs without ever harming them when they could just as easily eat them is totally out of this world.  I never would have thought that organisms other than humans had the presence of mind to do this.
  5. They live beyond the control of gravity.  They are so light that it hardly effects them and since they live in trees and can walk upside down and all that, they don’t really know - or care - which way is up.  Furthermore, they never have to walk on the ground.  Instead they climb on each other to form a bridge through the air going in whatever direction they please.  I just think that’s really really cool.
  6. All of this they’ve been doing for 50 million years.  Compare that to our 10,000.

Regarding the sewing, which I think is almost as fantastic as the herding, I don’t think I can really do a better job at explaining it than what I originally read, so here you go:

"A single worker stands on a leaf and reaches to grasp the edge of another leaf nearby. If the span is too great, a second worker climbs over the first, and the bottom ant grasps the newcomer by its wire-thin waist and holds it out closer to the goal. Still not enough? A third ant clambers over the first two and is lifted out farther yet. Ant by ant, a living chain grows into thin air like the arm of a construction crane. Once the distant leaf is grabbed, the squad pulls in unison, often with nest mates that have formed parallel chains and reinforcing cross-links, to draw the leaves’ edges together. Workers begin to array themselves like live staples along the seam between the leaves, legs holding on to one edge, jaws gripping the other. And then? They wait.

As evening comes on and the humidity rises, more workers arrive from nearby nests. They’re carrying larvae that are about to enter the pupal stage and metamorphose into adults.

Larvae of other ant species spin individual protective cocoons of silk. Oecophylla larvae donate their silk to the colony. Straddling the leaf seam, an adult uses its antennae to tap the head of the larva held in its jaws, telling it to extrude silk from its salivary glands. A worker’s operating manual would read: Swing head to one side. Tappity-tap larva. Dab glob of its silk onto leaf. Swing head opposite way, drawing thread across to other leaf. Keep tappity-tapping larva. Dab next glob there. Step forward. Repeat procedure. When finished, move on to other tasks.”

Absolutely remarkable.

And so ends my lengthy explanation of why you should give a crap.  If something as seemingly negligible as an ant can be part of a society so complex and sophisticated as to be commonly referred to by scientists as a “superorganism,” surely we can wrap our heads around the idea that maybe we aren’t the only special ones.  Maybe all the world’s adaptations are remarkable and maybe every fresh new method of survival, each one as clever as the last, deserves to have room for self-actualization.  Everything that has conceived to live at all is not only a miracle, but a miracle worker itself.  So why not let 2012 be the year where we realize that our needs, nay our wants, do not trump the needs of others, and that we should not stifle the lives of others by living a certain way ourselves.  Remember: in their justifiable rights, they are our equals.  Let’s start making choices that reflect that.

(Source: National Geographic)

  1. earthdemocracy posted this