A recent study coming out of the University of Paris Nord has expanded on the results of an 1874 experiment which saw teams of ants lend a mandible to colony-mates submerged in sand by digging them out and dragging them to safety. This time, the operation got far more complex as researchers tied nylon threads around the waists of individual desert ants (specifically Cataglyphis cursors), half-buried them in sand, and watched as teams of five ants set out to rescue them. If the rescuers came from the same colony as the tethered ants, they would shift the sand away, gnaw through the nylon, and drag their relatives out by their limbs.
Importantly, this study has revealed that the altruistic mechanism in these ants is not just a simple find-and-dig response to a chemical released by distressed individuals. That they understood the solution to be digging out and biting through the nylon thread suggests a far more sophisticated mental process is being used. What was also clear from this study is the highly selective nature of this behaviour, which sees the rescuers work in ernest to free trapped individuals from their own colony, but threaten, dismember, and spit acid at individuals from different species, or ants from different colonies.
Now, this is all seems pretty reasonable, and so some unfortunate individuals might get sprayed with acid or severely bitten on occasion, it’s no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It is nature afterall. But what could become a serious issue is the fact that if all these rescue teams are doing is wandering around, scouting for ants in distress, saving some and dismembering others, pretty soon they’re going to get a serious case of the God Complex. Like they’ll be marching through the desert on a routine expedition, passing the time by exchanging really explicit stories of past sexual exploits and discussing which hot females they’d fully like to ruin, before suddenly picking up on a chemical alarm signal which sends them scampering towards the source. And then they’ll start digging the trapped individual out and it’ll be like, “Man, I can’t believe you did it with Gloria. Isn’t she like your cousin or something? Ahh, anyone know who this is? Have you guys seen him around before? Patrick? No? Anyone…? ACID!! ACID IN THE FACE!! KEEP GOING, HE’S GETTING WEAKER!!”
And then the expedition will move on, Steve will be talking about the time he did it with some female in the sink at Subway before Edgar interrupts with a, “Do you guys smell that?” And they’ll run over to this horrific scene where like three ants are trapped under a marbled velvet gecko carcass they thought they could carry but obviously couldn’t. So the rescuers will start digging furiously all like, “Whatever, man. You think that’s badass? Trying doing it in a proper restaurant that hasn’t put a hungover fifteen-year-old in charge of keeping the surfaces clean. Then we’ll all be impre- Shit. Hey Pierce, isn’t this that guy who hooked up with your little sister on New Years Eve that time your mum told you to keep an eye on her…? Yeah? LEGS! OFF WITH HIS LEGS!! Same colony? Whatever! Plenty more workers where you came from, buddy!”
And then they’ll start digging another one out and Piece will be like, “You know what? I’m pretty sure this is that arsehole who tried to steal my coffee table in woodwork once because we have the same initials and his was fully shit and crooked and… BITE HIM! BITE HIS HEAD!!” And meanwhile Bryce will be pulling the legs off some other colony-mate he thinks might have given his girlfriend the eye once at some party last year, gleefully dislocating the last leg with a, “How do you like me now, bitch?!”