[ExI] For Spike: Ant slaves' murderous rebellions

spike spike66 at att.net
Fri Apr 3 04:55:17 UTC 2009


> -----Original Message-----
> From: extropy-chat-bounces at lists.extropy.org 
> [mailto:extropy-chat-bounces at lists.extropy.org] On Behalf Of Emlyn
> Sent: Thursday, April 02, 2009 9:29 PM
> To: ExI chat list
> Subject: [ExI] For Spike: Ant slaves' murderous rebellions
> http://www.boingboing.net/2009/04/01/ant-slaves-murderous.html
> Ant slaves' murderous rebellions
> Cory Doctorow
> >From last month's journal Evolution, a fascinating tale of slave
> rebellion among ants kidnapped by other ant species and 
> forced to work for the rival colony.
> Emlyn

Coool!  Thanks Emlyn.  The following paragraphs are taken from the stunning
seventh chapter of Darwin's Origin of Species.  I am in awe of Darwin and
his contemporaries in their thoroughness of observation of ants:


Slave-making instinct. 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 without a slave, but with plenty of the food
which they like best, and with their larvae and pupae to stimulate 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 the larvae, and put all to rights. What can be more extraordinary
than these well-ascertained facts? If we had not known of any other
slave-making ant, it would have been hopeless to have speculated how so
wonderful an instinct could have been perfected. 

Formica sanguinea was likewise first discovered by P. Huber to be a
slave-making ant. This species is found in the southern parts of England,
and its habits have been attended to by Mr. F. Smith, of the British Museum,
to whom I am much indebted for information on this and other subjects.
Although fully trusting to the statements of Huber and Mr. Smith, I tried to
approach the subject in a sceptical frame of mind, as any one may well be
excused for doubting the truth of so extraordinary and odious an instinct as
that of making slaves. Hence I will give the observations which I have made
myself made, in some little detail. I opened fourteen nests of F. sanguinea,
and found a few slaves in all. Males and fertile females of the
slave-species are found only in their own proper communities, and have never
been observed in the nests of F. sanguinea. The slaves are black and not
above half the size of their red masters, so that the contrast in their
appearance is very great. When the nest is slightly disturbed, the slaves
occasionally come out, and like their masters are much agitated and defend
their nest: when the nest is much disturbed and the larvae and pupae are
exposed, the slaves work energetically with their masters in carrying them
away to a place of safety. Hence, it is clear, that the slaves feel quite at
home. During the months of June and July, on three successive years, I have
watched for many hours several nests in Surrey and Sussex, and never saw a
slave either leave or enter a nest. As, during these months, the slaves are
very few in number, I thought that they might behave differently when more
numerous; but Mr. Smith informs me that he has watched the nests at various
hours during May, June and August, both in Surrey and Hampshire, and has
never seen the slaves, though present in large numbers in August, either
leave or enter the nest. Hence he considers them as strictly household
slaves. The masters, on the other hand, may be constantly seen bringing in
materials for the nest, and food of all kinds. During the present year,
however, in the month of July, I came across a community with an unusually
large stock of slaves, and I observed a few slaves mingled with their
masters leaving the nest, and marching along the same road to a tall
Scotch-fir-tree, twenty-five yards distant, which they ascended together,
probably in search of aphides or cocci. According to Huber, who had ample
opportunities for observation, in Switzerland the slaves habitually work
with their masters in making the nest, and they alone open and close the
doors in the morning and evening; and, as Huber expressly states, their
principal office is to search for aphides. This difference in the usual
habits of the masters and slaves in the two countries, probably depends
merely on the slaves being captured in greater numbers in Switzerland than
in England. 

One day I fortunately chanced to witness a migration from one nest to
another, and it was a most interesting spectacle to behold the masters
carefully carrying, as Huber has described, their slaves in their jaws.
Another day my attention was struck by about a score of the slave-makers
haunting the same spot, and evidently not in search of food; they approached
and were vigorously repulsed by an independent community of the slave
species (F. fusca); sometimes as many as three of these ants clinging to the
legs of the slave-making F. sanguinea. The latter ruthlessly killed their
small opponents, and carried their dead bodies as food to their nest,
twenty-nine yards distant; but they were prevented from getting any pupae to
rear as slaves. I then dug up a small parcel of the pupae of F. fusca from
another nest, and put them down on a bare spot near the place of combat;
they were eagerly seized, and carried off by the tyrants, who perhaps
fancied that, after all, they had been victorious in their late combat. 

At the same time I laid on the same place a small parcel of the pupae of
another species, F. flava, with a few of these little yellow ants still
clinging to the fragments of the nest. This species is sometimes, though
rarely, made into slaves, as has been described by Mr Smith. Although so
small a species, it is very courageous, and I have seen it ferociously
attack other ants. In one instance I found to my surprise an independent
community of F. flava under a stone beneath a nest of the slave-making F.
sanguinea; and when I had accidentally disturbed both nests, the little ants
attacked their big neighbours with surprising courage. Now I was curious to
ascertain whether F. sanguinea could distinguish the pupae of F. fusca,
which they habitually make into slaves, from those of the little and furious
F. flava, which they rarely capture, and it was evident that they did at
once distinguish them: for we have seen that they eagerly and instantly
seized the pupae of F. fusca, whereas they were much terrified when they
came across the pupae, or even the earth from the nest of F. flava, and
quickly ran away; but in about a quarter of an hour, shortly after all the
little yellow ants had crawled away, they took heart and carried off the

One evening I visited another community of F. sanguinea, and found a number
of these ants entering their nest, carrying the dead bodies of F. fusca
(showing that it was not a migration) and numerous pupae. I traced the
returning file burthened with booty, for about forty yards, to a very thick
clump of heath. whence I saw the last individual of F. sanguinea emerge,
carrying a pupa; but I was not able to find the desolated nest in the thick
heath. The nest, however, must have been close at hand, for two or three
individuals of F. fusca were rushing about in the greatest agitation, and
one was perched motionless with its own pupa in its mouth on the top of a
spray of heath over its ravaged home... 

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