People bitten by ants usually go berserk, quickly brush them aside,  making sure that they get squished in the process. We get mad, stomp the ant trails and wish them all dead. Though we humans are the highest, most intelligent form of organism, we also have outrageously animalistic tendencies, which is probably why we are on top of the food chain in the first place. Notwithstanding their seemingly just annoying pinch and sting, ants can be considered among the "violent" ones in the animal kingdom.

Dave General, ant specialist at the UPLB Museum of Natural History says, "not all is cozy in the ant nest," bringing listeners to attention during a seminar last March 26 at the MNH Conference Room. "Ants wreak havoc and commit 'atrocities' to their fellow ants," he said.

According to General, although ants (of the Insect family Formicidae) almost eat anything, there are many specialist predators, and all are fighters. "Even herbivorous ants such as leaf cutters can also defend themselves against common enemies," he said. 

Special ends

Ants have very special parts, said General. "Their jaws differ in size and shape, depending on what they primarily eat," he discussed. Ants trap and lock their prey, using incredibly strong mandibles sharp enough to cut through enemies with ease.

Aside from having powerful jaws, many ants have pointed stingers at their rear end. "They use their stingers to puncture enemies and inject them with venom," General followed.

Ant mayhem

Ants are not very forgiving, even to the other ant counterparts. "Ants are the top predators of their size class, meaning, if we put them side by side with other insects as small as they are, they would most probably win against the other," he added.

According to General, ants can overpower other colonies, even if their enemies are larger. "The usual result of ant battles is mayhem," he added. "You see a lot of violence: ants maiming and dismembering their opponents, food reserves being raided, queens being killed, and nests being destroyed.

Violent ants

General gave five examples of ant species to illustrate the violence of ants. The first was the weaver ants, popularly known by its local name, 'Kara-kara.'

The weaver ant, Oecophylla smaragdina, begins a new colony by working together. Newly-mated queens group and gather workers in order to build their nests among tree leaves and stems. "But over time, worker ants "assassinate" the other queens so that the mature colony would only have one queen," he discussed.

In the case of Diacamma spp., General said that all of the worker ants are potentially fertile and there are no queens; the gamergate (mated worker) lays the eggs. But the gamergate mutilates the offspring ants when they emerge from the eggs. "The gamergate mutilates them by tearing off their gemma, a unique exocrine gland in their body," he explained. More interestingly, this behaviour is passed on to the oldest offspring, which will carry on the mutilation on her sisters, when the gamergate has died.

"In the nest of the Harpegnathos spp. on the other hand, there is constant fighting among themselves," General added. He explained that in this species, the imposed dominance of the gamergate is always challenged by others. "So several gamergates compete in producing offspring so that they can dominate the nest," he said.

But of course, General said, if there is domination by others, there also exists the opposite. Temnothorax longispinosus, while it serves as the host of the social parasite, slave-making ant Protomognathus americanus, also kills as much as a third of the Protomognathus' female pupae. "This form of rebellion against their 'masters' increases the chance of survival of nearby Temnothorax colonies which have not yet been attacked by the slave-making ant," he explained.

Finally, General shared the blood-curdling behaviour of Stigmatomma spp. "These queen and workers of this species literally puncture their own larvae and feed on the blood, hence their name, Dracula Ants."

"Violence is pretty much very common in the everyday life of ants," the speaker concluded. 

So the next time you are bitten by an ant, be thankful that you are way too much bigger than it. "If ants were as big as humans, probably we would not be on top of the food chain right now," he said during a side discussion.

Photo credits: Alex WildGary Alpert and Andreas Freytag

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