Robert writes eclectic and informative articles about a variety of historical subjects including unusual events and people.
Is it possible that ants are intelligent? The idea may seem preposterous to some—after all, how can something so small, with the brain the size of a pin head be smart? The very thought of bugs and insects being intelligent seems like an insult to us humans. After all, aren't we the dominant species; the only species that builds cities, uses tools, farms, and demonstrates the capacity to plan and think?
But if we look closer, we can see that ants exhibit many of the characteristics and behaviours that we associate with intelligence and civilization. In fact, if ants did not exist on Earth but we encountered them on, for example, Mars, I am sure that we would wonder if we had encountered an intelligent alien race that builds cities, farms, raises animals, and organizes itself into a complex society complete with social ranks such as nobles, soldiers, workers and slaves. I am sure that we would conclude that these aliens were in fact intelligent. So why do we ignore the signs of intelligence of ants on our own world? Do we have an intelligent alien species literally here under our feet?
So let's explore the alien world of ants right here on Earth and see whether they are intelligent or not.
Ants Build Cities
I know what you are thinking, ant hills aren't cities. They're, well, ant hills. But did you know that large ant hills contain complex ventilation systems that remove carbon dioxide and bring in fresh air, or that they have the equivalent of hundreds of miles of sewers that drain the ant waste into special chambers were the waste is recycled? Did you know that ant cities have an incredibly complex transportation system including highways? Or that each ant city can hold millions of ants.
Sounds incredible, and for the most part it is difficult to imagine the engineering marvel which is an ant city because most of it is underground. In fact, if we were the size of an ant, most of an ant city would be the equivalent of three miles underground.
The video to the right shows what scientists discovered when they filled an ant city with cement and then dug the resulting cast out of the ground. They were able to see for the first time what an ant city looks like and explore the complex series of chambers, roads and ventilation shafts that allows millions of ants to live underground. The video is amazing and is well worth watching from beginning to end.
Ants Farm and Cultivate Mushrooms
Ants are the only animal besides humans that farms food. All other creatures hunt or harvest their food where they find it and are dependent on the whims of nature, and climate for their survival. For example, wolves are smart, and they will exhibit cooperation and skill in hunting for food. But wolves do not capture deer and breed them. Deer will forage for grasses and other food, but of course they have no thought of sowing grass seeds to ensure a plentiful supply of foraging crops. In fact, not one animal besides man and ants has ever thought to keep their prey in captivity or to farm plants in order to feed themselves in the future. Even intelligent animals like wolves lack the foresight to plan beyond meeting their immediate needs.
Ants, like humans, farm plants and raise cattle. Sounds preposterous. It's true.
There are species of ants that collect leaves and take them to specially constructed chambers within their colonies where they grow fungus on the decomposing leaves. The fungus is then eaten by the ants.
The growing of the fungus requires a great deal of planning and forethought: an appropriate chamber must be constructed, the right leaves must be collected, waste must be removed so as not to choke the growing fungus beds, and the leaves must be seeded with the fungus spores. The spores do no grow naturally in throughout the ant colony; the ants must collect the spores and bring them to the leaves.
Fungus farming is an example of intelligence and creativity. Other animals and insects would recognize the food value of fungus growing on leaves if they came across it in the wild. But no other animal or insect, besides humans, would understand that by contaminating a new leaf with the fungus spore, it will result in more food later. This shows intelligence, understanding and the ability to think ahead.
The fact that ants farm is an achievement that sets them apart from the rest of the animal and insect kingdoms. What is even more amazing is that ants have been doing this for millions of years. Humans did not learn to farm until around 5 or 6,000 years ago. Prior to that, humans behaved as hunter gatherers just like the rest of the animal kingdom.
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Ants Farm Other Insects
But ants don't just farm, they raise and keep other insects for food, just like humans raise cattle. Many species of ants will domesticate aphids and act like shepherds by taking the aphids to feed on plants, while protecting them from other insect predators. The ants will then "milk" the aphids by squeezing their abdomens and causing some digested plant juice to be released into the mouths of the ants which will then share this nutritious fluid with the rest of the colony.
The ants behaviour in keeping ants closely parallels that of human shepherds and cattle breeders: ants will take the aphids to different pastures, they will guard them against predators, and they will harvest them.
The ants' behaviour in this regard is markedly different from that of other animals or insects. Even though wolves display intelligence similar to that of dogs, they lack the foresight to control their instincts and avoid killing their prey in order to get more food in the long run. If a wolf gets his teeth on a rabbit, or a deer, it will kill it and eat it on the spot. No wolf would ever capture the animal, tend to its needs, protect it from other predators and then take food from it without killing it (for example milking a cow) in order to reuse this food resource.
The only animals that do this are humans and ants. And once again ants beat us to it: they have been farming aphids for millions of years. Humans discovered animal husbandry about 6,000 years ago.
Ants Wage War
Ants are the only animal besides humans which wage war in organized batallions, against other organized opponents. Like humans, ants wage war to capture territory and food resources from other ant colonies. Sometimes ant wars lead to the total defeat of an opponent and the survivors are captured and held as slaves.
Of course, war in itself may not be a great example of intelligence. But the organization, planning and coordination required to wage war is the product of intelligence.
In contrast to the war waging behaviour of many ant colonies, some ant species settle their difference in single combat between champions chosen by each colony. Bert Holldobler, in an article entitled Tournaments and Slavery in a Desert Ant, noted that a species of desert ant conducts tournaments "in which hundreds of ants perform highly stereotyped display fights". The losing ant colony is then enslaved.
Ants Capture Slaves
Ant wars will often result in the defeated survivors being kept as slaves by the victorious ant colony. They are incorporated into the new colony and made to work for the victors.
We must not equate ant slavery with the human experience. Obviously human slavery is morally reprehensible and wrong from a political, moral and economic perspective. Still, the taking of prisoners and using them as slaves is a behaviour that is both complex and unique to ants and humans.
When other animals defeat a foe, they either kill it or allow it to retreat. For example, if two male mountain goats fight over a female, they will ram their horns against each other until one either dies or retreats. If the loser retreats, the winner will win right to mate with the female goat. No animal would then make the loser his slave.
Ants, on the other hand, have figured out that defeated enemies can be useful. They can be spared and put to work for the good of the colony.
The ants' behaviour in capturing and enslaving other ants shows an understanding of 1) deferred benefit (it is better to use the slave ants for future work than to eat them now) and 2) organization (slave ants must be supervised and put to work on assigned tasks).
Ants Teach and Communicate
A recent study has demonstrated that ants can pass on knowledge from one ant to another and teach other ants how to find food.
Ants have been observed to use a teaching technique called "tandem running" in which an ant that knows where to find food, will lead a new ant to the spot. The teacher ant will slow his pace to allow the student ant; if the student ant falls behind.
The teacher ant's behaviour does not provide a benefit to the teacher. If the teacher were not leading the student ant, it could locate and collect the food about four times faster. But by taking time to lead a novice ant to a food source, it allows other ants to locate the food faster than they would have discovered it on their own. As a result, the entire ant nest benefits.
Scientists believe that this ant behaviour represents "the first time a demonstration of formal teaching has been recognised in any non-human animal". Once again, humans and ants have something in common.
Ants Cooperate and Exhibit Teamwork
Ants are tiny, but they can cooperate to an amazing degree. Their cooperation exhibits purpose, planning, and command and control. Below are some amazing videos of ants moving large objects, and other ants cutting down a tree.
Their behaviour parallels that of humans. Imagine an ancient workforce of Egyptian labourers building the pyramids by moving giant limestone blocks, and you will have a good comparison to the amazing ants.
Ants are the most successful species on earth. They have survived and thrived for millions of years; they have conquered and colonized every continent and environment except Antarctica. Ants can be found in burning deserts, in jungles, and in cities. Ants exhibit many behaviours consistent with intelligence and civilization: they build cities, farm, communicate, and accomplish tasks through collective, highly organized goal-driven behaviour. If ants were apes, or some other hominid, we would doubtlessly recognize them as intelligent.
When it comes to ants, however, most people overlook these hallmarks of intelligence and attribute these behaviours to blind instinct. They are just bugs, after all. They are creepy, crawly things. And they have tiny brains. Could they possibly be intelligent?
Smart Ants Build Bridges
When ants encounter a ravine or body of water that they need to cross, they do the same thing that humans do: they build a bridge.
In the video below you can see a group of "engineer" ants constructing a bridge to help their fellow ants cross over. They do this with their own bodies, which some might argue is not the same thing as building a rope bridge or similar feat of human engineering. However we have to keep in mind that ants do not have hands and opposable thumbs; they cannot use tools. However they are amazingly versatile at solving problems. Their ant bridges are simple yet effective solutions constructed with the only tools and resources they have. The fact that they are able to figure out how to cross over displays an ability to problem solve, team work and organization. These are higher level intellectual functions usually associated with humans and some primates. Despite the fact that dogs are intelligent, you would never see a pack of them building a bridge by holding on to each others' tails.
Ants Are Tiny Farmers
Ants don't just grow mushrooms and fungi within the depths of their underground realms, they shape and cultivate above ground vegetation by selecting plants that they favor and destroying plants that compete with the ones they want to grow, in the same way that a human gardener would plant seeds and then take out any weeds that compete with their plants.
This leads to a phenomena known as the Devil's Garden or the Devil's clearing which are patches within the South American forest, where only a few trees of a certain type grow. Everything else - all other forms of trees, shrubs and even grass does not grow there. The reason? Millions of ants continuously destroy any plant which competes with a certain hollow stemmed tree. The ants favor the hollow tree because it gives them shelter and allows them to travel within its branches protected from bird predators.
Some might say that this is simply an example of blind evolution, that ants have simply been programmed genetically to kill any tree or plant except the hollow tree. They would argue that over millions of years, natural selection favored these ants who live in hollow trees and take care of their trees. The ants have no knowledge or why or what they do.
This argument presupposes that ants cannot think and therefore their actions, even though they achieve a defined and complex purpose, are simply the result of inborn instinct, of mindless chemical reactions. But what if we abandon our prejudice against the very concept of an intelligent insect and focus instead on the activity? How is it any different in essence from the actions of a human farmer who plants wheat in his field (a clearing so to speak) and who then spends time, energy and money on killing off all competing plants and weeds in order to ensure a good harvest. If we look at it that way, must we not concede that they are doing what we do?
If we came across a species of ape that did this, we would have no difficulty in accepting that their pre-human intelligence had allowed them to figure out the basics of agriculture. But when we see the same behavior and skill in an ant, we recoil at the idea that these tiny creatures—whether individually or as a form of collective hive mind - may have not only intelligence, but the indications of a civilization.