Forget everything you’ve ever believed about ants, or almost. In a garden or in a forest, when you observe a colony, you have the impression that the life of each of them is well regulated, that they do their job without batting an eyelid. It almost seems like a hierarchical society with the very human idea that we find the queen at the helm, warm in her CEO guise, ready to dole out the good points by naming her most deserving workers.
Actually, among these living beings that appeared more than 100 million years ago, there are also rebels, but also lazy and even super warriors. “In short, an ant colony is organized chaos! », decide Audrey Dussutour and Antoine Wystrach from the first pages of their book the odyssey of the ants. These two myrmecologists from Toulouse take readers down the path of some of the 13,000 carefully selected species identified today. A work with scientific content that reads like a science fiction adventure novel.
Capable of defeating prey up to 10,000 times their weight, we discover them in turn as doctors, drug addicts or even suicide bombers. This is the case of colobopsis who do not hesitate to explode their abdomen, releasing a poison that can knock out multiple opponents. A sacrifice to protect the nest.
In their book where they focused on 75 species, the two scientists chose to focus on forage, these grannies who leave the anthill to find food for the little ones busy taking care of the larvae and organizing the anthill. Especially the men, who contrary to the image of heroes that is presented in the cartoons 1001 legs Y Antzthey are “housed, fed, bleached”.
These workers then take all the risks. far from simple stormtroopers, with their brains no bigger than the head of a pin, they manage to do amazing things for the colony. “These are creatures that are capable of solving incredible challenges and many times of which we have no idea. For example, they have dominated agriculture for millions of years, they use antibiotics, they know how to build traps. The colonies are not societies but families since they are all genetically linked to each other and when the colony works, it works for a common goal”, insists Laure Dussutour.
But being also very different from each other, they use very different means to achieve it. Some, equipped with almost 360-degree eyes, use them to map the terrain, in timelapse mode. Others, blind, use their olfactory system and the collective to reach their prey.
Less known, the species Camponotus atriceps managed to make friends with the caterpillar of a butterfly, the Anatole rossi. It was the ecologist Gary Ross who made this discovery while he was closely following this butterfly in Veracruz (Mexico). The caterpillar secretes a molasses when the shepherdesses make love to it and in return they take care of it by creating a kind of sheepfold where it shelters. “He observed this cooperation between the caterpillar and the ants, an absolutely fascinating association. It tells this story of a small pen where the ants take care of the caterpillar during the day, from where it comes out at night. Even during metamorphosis, they protect it”, says Audrey Dussutour.
Sometimes psychotic, often inspiring
Although they highlight all the capabilities of these little beasts, the two authors of this fantastic odyssey have not overlooked the slightly less friendly side of the ants. We discovered them as slavers. With species whose queens have nothing to envy the damned Mary Tudor. Half psychopaths, these epimirma they do not hesitate to pretend to have died at the door of their cousins’ nests. The latter bring them back inside. And this is where she reveals the true face of her, murdering the workers. She “Then he will suffocate the queen of the nest for two or three months by strangling her to keep her alive. Each one has their own strategy, some throw stones at others’ faces”, the scientist laughs.
A scene worthy of game of Thrones, in which their bodies can become a weapon. As in the case of the bullet ant, whose sting can faint even the strongest. Or the fire ant that invaded the United States and brought down the electrical circuits of many buildings. They attack en masse and their bites can cause allergies, even causing death by anaphylactic shock.
nothing to do with him tapinoma, this little black ant that is having fun at the moment embeds it in the houses of Corsica or Brittany. “It enters houses, it annoys people, but it does not cause damage. Don’t leave food lying around, that’s what attracts them. No matter how much you wash the pheromone trails they leave behind with bleach, they will leave new ones”, emphasizes the myrmecologist from Toulouse.
Instead of getting rid of him, he advocates living with him. And to be inspired by it. As is already the case with some researchers who have used the algorithms provided for telecommunications or nest architecture. Or even more recently, the ability of some of them to differentiate tumor cells through their olfactory system. “They are above all useful for the ecosystem of which we are a part. They are very responsible for soil aeration, seed dispersal and, many times, we don’t think about it, pollination”, concludes Audrey Dussutour. To meditate when one feels tempted to send a good kick to the anthill.