Ants are so in tune with each other that they function as a single superorganism when under threat, new research finds.
The discovery, reported in the journal PLOS ONE, adds to the growing evidence that ultra social beings, such as ants, act more as one living entity than as individuals, at least under certain circumstances.
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The resulting superorganism is "much greater than the sum of their individual parts," wrote lead author Thomas O'Shea-Weller of the University of Bristol and colleagues Ana Sendova-Franks and Nigel Franks.
Using a fine-tipped brush, the researchers simulated different predator attacks on 30 migrating ant colonies. To do so, they removed ants that were serving as scouts on the colony periphery. Then, separately, they removed worker ants from the center of the nest.
The scientists found that when scouts were moved from the periphery, the foraging "arms" of the colony retracted back into the nest, with the individuals appearing to move as one, sort of like a marching band in formation seen from above.
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Conversely, when the worker ants were removed from the center of the nest, the whole colony fled as one and sought refuge in a new location.
The authors draw parallels with the nervous systems of individual humans and other solo organisms. The first ant disturbance, and subsequent reaction, was likened to a person burning his or her hand on a stove. The second, they say, was "more of a house on fire scare."
As O'Shea-Wheller said in a press release, "Ants react very differently, and in a coordinated fashion, to perceived predator attacks depending on their location."
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He added, "Just as we may respond to cell damage via pain, ant colonies respond to the loss of individuals via group awareness and reaction."
The term "superorganism" was coined way back in 1789 by scientist James Hutton, who is often referred to as the "Father of Geology." It technically refers to "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective."
A question then to ask is: What is to be considered the individual? Consider that earlier research found that 90 percent of the cells within our bodies are not ours, but are instead microbes.
Superorganisms may be far more common than we thought.