How Ants Wage War

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. For a species that places a lot of value on peace, humans devote a lot of time to war. Not only do we fight each other all the time, we also devote a lot of energy to studying all possible aspects of warfare. But not too many of us focus our research on how humans compare to ants when it comes to combat. Mark Moffett is a research associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where he studies ant behavior. He's traveled the world studying ants and has an article in this month's Scientific American on Ants and the Art of War. So, Mark, your premise is that ants and humans basically fight in similar ways. Explain that for us.

Mark Moffett: Well, among the animals only ants and human have societies in the millions. And for that reason they tend to share a lot of things in common that we don't expect. In fact, we modern humans more closely resemble ants than we do our closest living relatives, apes. You know, what ape has to worry about things like highways and infrastructure, and resource allocations, and slavery and warfare? Both ants and humans, particularly our largest societies, have full bore warfare.

Werman: Well, let's get to some of the good stuff here. You've got ants dropping stones on enemies. Some engage in kind of hand to hand combat. You've even witnessed suicide bomber ants. Explain a few of these tactics and what happens as you've observed these ants carefully in the field through your camera and telephoto lens.

Moffett: Well, in smaller societies there's often a more cautious approach to warfare. There is one species of ant that actually drops pebbles on the enemies heads. And might not lose any troops as a result of that at all. Then you can have things like suicide bombers. And there's a species in Borneo that literally will walk up to the enemy and explode; it is full of a toxic yellow glue and it kills both itself and the enemies nearby in a tableau instantly.

Werman: Yeah, we've got a picture of that at theworld.org and it is a pretty extraordinary photograph. Why do ants fight each other? What are they fighting over, territory, the queen, food?

Moffett: They're fighting for economic reasons in the same ways we fight for economic reasons. Typically food, territory if they're territorial ants is a big thing. There could be roving bands of ants that don't have territories, but are more predatory and raid the nests of other ants to kill them for food.

Werman: Is it between similar species or raiding another species?

Moffett: In the case of the army ants they're raiding all kinds of other species. They do not attack each other. These are ants that are basically specialists at killing other kinds of ants and it turns out that with each other they have a kind of detente. And if you think of it, it makes sense. Since they're experts at killing each other it would be mutually assured destruction if they went at it army ant to army ant. They actually just go off in their own directions and leave each other alone. They don't have territories to fight over, so there's no point in fighting each other.

Werman: I'd like us to just listen. This is swarming ants army as you recorded last month in Guyana.

Mark, tell us what we're listening to right now. What are we hearing?

Moffett: Well, I wanted to record army ants killing their prey, but if you think about it, a knife going into a body is a pretty silent thing. So I recorded first those sounds and it wasn't much, it was the silent death struggles. And then I lowered the microphone actually down onto the prey itself, and these are the ants actually trying to rip to pieces the microphone. And they have tough little mandibles that can saw through anything. This allows them to kill and in the case of the African army ants, even vertebrates can be torn asunder. This is actually a South American species. They can't hurt a human being except through pinching us and they actually leave marks all over our bodies. I've had their soldiers all over my skin at one time or another.

Werman: You've also watched tens of thousands of African army ants literally chew the flesh off a tethered gazelle in minutes. Would you call that intelligent group think or is more mob behavior?

Moffett: Well, it depends. At the point where they're actually killing the prey it seems pretty disorganized to us, but the points leading up to that where you can have in the case of the African species, swarms of millions of ants -- I've seen swarms a hundred feet wide, and these can actually turn and follow the best sources of food. The troops move in quickly to where the prey are being killed. It's all very organized. And the higher level organization emerges from tiny bits of information being passed around the ants. Most ants are quite ignorant, but they each know a little something and you combine that together, and you can make marvelously organized responses. You can get armies that allocate their troops in ways that actually are familiar even to military analysts of the human species.

Werman: All of this discussion, Mark, is dependent on the human-ant analogy. Once you look at the difference though between ants and humans you know, the fact that ants work for a queen and basically are the support system in war for technical battle ants, can we still look at ants as a metaphor for human activity?

Moffett: Well, certainly we can. Basically, ants have a lot of properties in common with us. We have to realize that there will be differences when we compare any kind of animals or even if we compare human cultures, there are differences. But the analogies are actually quite deep and interesting. In terms of the organization of these groups, where you put the best fighters in the case of the army ants, particularly a species called the morator[? 5:46] ant in Malaysia, the best fighters, the Mel Gibsons you know, of the ant world, are not in the front lines getting hacked to pieces, which is what Mel Gibson is always doing. They hang back...

Werman: In his movies you mean.

Moffett: Yes, that was true in the ancient river valley societies around the world, where you have these elitist warriors that Mel was portraying, they hang back. The cheap labor, the farmers get slaughtered in these societies and then only when it's safe do they expensive, well-trained laborers come forward, these elite soldiers. And the ants and the humans both show this pattern, a sad one in case of humans, but it's been a historical fact in warfare for a large part of human history.

Werman: Mark Moffett's article in this month's Scientific American is Ants and the Art of War. His most recent book is Adventures Among Ants. Mark, thanks so much.

Moffett: Thanks, Marco.