Ants most certainly do fight each other. From small scale internal fighting to all out wars, the world of ants is one of conflict and fierce battles which at times may lead to death or injury. In fact, fossil evidence suggests that ants have been fighting for at least 99 million years.
In this article we look into why and how ants fight, as well as interesting instances wherein ants rest their mandibles and choose to stop fighting instead.
Why Do Ants Fight Each Other?
There are a number of reasons why ants fight. And interestingly, these reasons hit close to home as they’re very similar to what causes conflict between humans. They are as follows:
- Competition. The most prevalent cause of fighting between ants is competition. For the sake of survival, ant colonies which nest in close proximity to each other compete and fight with for valuable resources such as food.
- Protection. Due to competition it isn’t unusual for ants to invade the nests of rival colonies to try and take over their food sources. When this occurs, expect the nest inhabitants to fight and defend their home from the invaders.
- Colony Health. Ants don’t only fight ants from other colonies, they also fight among themselves. For instance, ants may sometimes assassinate their queen when its reproductive capability deteriorates. This allows them to put up a stronger queen as a replacement and allow the colony to survive longer.
- Population Control. In relation to colony health, the queenless ant species Cerapachys biroi, kill each other to prevent population from swelling to numbers beyond what they can provide for. Thus, any ant which lays eggs in unideal times gets killed off.
- Ant Politics. Many ant colonies have a polygynous social structure, meaning there may be multiple queens in one colony. There are two ways this can occur, primary or secondary, which differ in the way the social structure was formed. Either way though, both foster queen to queen competition. For instance, in primary polygyny, queens and workers fight each other until only one remains. In secondary polygyny on the other hand, queen executions are carried out to promote colony health and to ensure that the best and healthiest queens remain for the job. This thus causes reproductive competition between queens.
- Miscommunication. Sometimes ants simply fail to recognize their nestmates and mistake them for enemies. This occurs when ants, which distinguish friends from foes via odors, pick up the wrong odor cues from their nestmates. This then elicits an aggressive reaction which may lead to fighting.
How Do Ants Fight Each Other?
It’s easy to think that ant fights are simple contests of force and numbers. But while that’s partly true, in reality, ant fights are far more complex. Through millions of years fighting, ants have developed a variety of weapons and strategies to try and get ahead of their competition.
Ants naturally possess physical weapons that they use for fighting. For example, they have strong mandibles which they use to bite and tear their enemies into pieces. Some ants also have stingers at the end of their abdomens which they use to pierce.
But what’s more interesting though is the fact that ants aren’t just limited to physical weaponry, they make use of chemicals as well. In fact, almost all ants can spray a poison called formic acid from their abdomens.
One particular example of the use of chemicals comes from the ant species Colobopsis explodens. These seemingly harmless ants which lack large mandibles and stingers, blow themselves up to release sticky, bright yellow toxins to protect their colonies.
Ants are also smart with how they fight. They don’t just run around mindlessly chomping with their mandibles and spraying formic acid everywhere. Instead they make use of strategies and coordinated attacks.
For instance, a common strategy that they employ is grouping up to pin down their enemies as they tear them apart. Brutal, yet somehow also impressive.
Ants have also been likened to Roman armies attacking their enemies by surprise as one massive battalion. When they do, they position expendable units on the front lines and allow their advanced and stronger fighters to go for the kill when their enemies are already exhausted.
Apart from wars and other physical skirmishes, ants interfere and disrupt each other as they fight over resources. For example, the Novomessor cockerelli, a species of harvester ants found in the Lower Sonoran desert, disrupt their competitors the Pogonomyrmex barbatus by filling their nest entrances with sand early in the morning. This delays the activity period of the latter by one to three hours, and effectively decreases their foraging capacity. At the same time, the former gets to forage relatively freely and with less competition.
Peace Over War
With a very long history of fighting, it may seem unlikely for different ant colonies to get along and have peaceful lives together. Yet that’s exactly what happens. Research has found that ants that have been fighting aggressively to the death may just suddenly stop fighting and form a lasting truce with the queens of each colony still alive. This prevents more costly deaths that may leave even the victor vulnerable and allows them to refocus on defending the territory from other external threats.
That said, scientists have yet to find the reason why ants suddenly stop fighting. They have however proposed that it’s possible for fighting to change the odors which ants use to distinguish nestmates from outsiders and that the blended odor cues may end aggressive behavior.
Ants have it rough. Their world is filled with competition and fights are simply part of the daily struggle. Any chance encounter with rival colonies could lead to wars which may injure and take hundreds to thousands of lives. But that’s not the only issue. Fights erupt even within colonies and internal struggles may sometimes lead to the death of all queens and thus the death of the colony itself.
It’s a brutal world of politics and fighting. One of which I’m glad that I’m not apart of and that I’m simply a mere observer.