Ant Colonies Act Like 'Superorganisms' When Threatened by a Predator

First Posted: Nov 12, 2015 09:53 AM EST

It turns out that an ant colony could be classified as a "superorganism." Scientists have found that ants respond to the disturbances in their nest as one, highly organized superorganism rather than a group of individuals.

Ant colonies are incredibly complex, and also intensely cooperative. This is often why they're referred to as single superorganisms. In this latest study, though, researchers wanted to see the extent to which these colonies act as superorganisms.

In this latest study, the scientists simulated different predator attacks on 30 migrating ant colonies. To observe the ants' responses to predation at different locations in and near the nest, they removed ant scouting at the colony periphery, and then separately removed workers from the center of the nest.

When the scouts were removed from the periphery, the foraging "arms" of the colony retracted back to the nest. However, when ants were removed from within the center of the nest itself, the whole colony fled and sought asylum in a new location.

The first of these scenarios is similar to burning your hand on a stove. The second, though, is more of a "house on fire" scare. You can actually draw parallels with the nervous system of single organisms with these responses. They allow appropriate and location-dependent responses to damage. Just as organisms respond to cell damage via pain, ant colonies respond to loss of workers via group awareness.

"Ants react very differently, and in a coordinated fashion, to perceived predator attacks depending on their location," said Thomas o'Shea-Wheller, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Just as we may respond to cell damage via pain, ant colonies respond to the loss of individuals via group awareness and reaction."

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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