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Ants form ‘superorganism’ when threatened by predator

London: Ants are capable of coordinating together to form a single entity by becoming a highly organised ‘superorganism’ when threatened by a predator, a new study has found.

Ant colonies are incredibly complex, and at the same time, intensely cooperative, which is why they are often referred to as single ‘superorganisms.’

The study by Thomas O’Shea-Wheller from the University of Bristol, UK, and colleagues, interested in the extent to which ants behave as a single entity, simulated different predator attacks on 30 migrating ant colonies.

To observe the ants’ responses to predation at different locations in and near the nest, they removed ant scouting at the colony periphery, and then separately, removed workers from the centre of the nest.

When scouts were removed from the periphery, the foraging ‘arms’ of the colony retracted back into the nest. However, when ants were removed from within the centre of the nest itself, the whole colony fled, seeking asylum in a new location.

While the first of these scenarios could be seen as akin to burning your hand on a stove, the second is more of a ‘house on fire’ scare, researchers said.

Researchers said their results may draw parallels with the nervous systems of single organisms, in that they allow appropriate and location-dependent responses to damage.

They suggest that just as organisms may respond to cell damage via pain, ant colonies respond to loss of workers via group awareness.

“Ants react very differently, and in a coordinated fashion, to perceived predator attacks depending on their location. Just as we may respond to cell damage via pain, ant colonies respond to the loss of individuals via group awareness and reaction,” said O’Shea-Wheller.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.