Amazing Microsocieties: Ants vs. Termites

Scientists have long known that humans are not the only species endowed with certain gifts; wolves, dolphins, orcas and apes all have highly advanced social behavior and the ability to organize. Despite these fantastic achievements, Mankind remains the only species of mammal to possess both a societal structure, and the ability to build structures in which to house those societies. That particular trait combination can be found in another part of the animal-kingdom; the Insect Kingdom, and most notably among its ground-dwelling denizens, the Ants and Termites.

A Well Grounded Society

(images via kahwai, matildashelia, bushwalking, Guardian)

Both loved by children and hated by most adults, ants span the globe and are widely known and instantly recognized.  Many Americans still remember having an ant-farm as a child, and watching the colony live, build and die inside the small glass case that was their world.  In their natural habitat, the scaling of what we witnessed as children is nothing short of spectacular. Some colonies of ants can be as small as a few dozen, living in a small hollowed log or mound of dirt clearly visible when happened upon, while larger supercolonies have been discovered spanning 100 kilometers or more across. Not all colonies are permanent, as the inhabitants will abandon the structure to save the group at nearly any hint of danger, and some ants do not stay in one location long enough to warrant the tunneling it takes to create them at all. In South America, the Army Ants move as a hoard, and actually create temporary lodging for their queen and larvae by linking their bodies together to form what’s called (appropriately enough) a bivouac.  In Africa, the driver ants do the same, and the Weaver Ant actually ties leaves together with silk from their larvae to create intricate nests above the ground.  While most structural colonies are tunneled underground or inside decrepit logs, some can be found above ground in what appear to be ant-made mountains or giant ant hills.  These do not generally reach the same heights as those of the termites. Many ants even herd aphids, as in the picture above (bottom). They tend to the flock, protecting it from natural predators, and actually “milk” the aphids using their antennae, gathering sugary secretions.

Forever Reaching Upward

(images via NMA, Loughborough, Emmitsburg)

Termites, like ants, are builders for the most part when it comes to creating their nests. Unlike ants, however, termites reach for the sky in their endeavors and build colossal towers to hold their huge populations. These towering palaces of dirt and fiber are nearly hollow when analyzed, as the termites themselves are smaller than ants and weigh almost nothing. While here in America, we know termites mostly for the damage caused when they move into our homes, devouring processed wood is not their forte.  Cellulose can be found in the oddest places, where not a tree can be seen for miles, and a termite nest will be there.  Above and to the right we see what looks like a strange alien plant, but it’s actually a plaster casting of the inside of a termite mound. Notice the size of the tunnels, and the complexity of the seemingly chaotic architecture. While a mound of hollowed out dirt may not seem like it could be very stable to a creature our size, these mounds provide absolute protection from the elements, as well as a nearly insurmountable fortress in times of danger.

The True Test of Any Society: War

(image via Termites 101)

While it’s never a nice thought, it is believed by many that the true test of any society is war, and microsocieties are no different in this. Ants and termites have been locked in an adversarial relationship for millions of years.  Entire colonies of ants will literally march out of their nests and assault a nearby termite mound, using waves of soldier and worker ants to break through sentry termites and gain entry to the deeper nest below.  Once inside, a battle between the two species can last hours or even days, as the ants slowly penetrate deeper into the compound and kill everything in their path.  There is no explanation for this behavior, as the termites do not seem to stand a chance against ants in direct combat.  They are weaker in every way, and they don’t usually mount attacks of their own.  Ant raids like this happen frequently, and if ever witnessed can be both an awesome and a frightening sight to behold.  The goal of such a raid seems to be to kill the termite queen, and to haul away all the termite eggs to use as food to feed the colony’s young.  It is a pure act of aggression, carried out by a society as a whole body.  Such things aren’t usually thought to exist in nature, outside human behavior.

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