Self-organization skills of ants are impressive. How do they achieve such large-scale project management? Without central control individual behavior of each worker ant contributes to the collective emergent behavior. Once they discover a resource they are extremely efficient in utilizing it. We have a lot to learn from them.
This documentary is quite unique in its approach. It documents an entire leafcutter ant colony (Atta cephalotes) re-organize itself from scratch in an artificial nest purposefully built to observe colony-scale behavior after transplanted from its native habitat. The phases of growth, establishment task allocation and decision making ways (collective swarm intelligence) of this fungus-farming ant colony is quite revealing.
Here’s a short clip by David Attenborough summarizing the leaf cutter natural history splendidly:
There are also quite a few other cutting edge artificial habitat experiments still on going at the University of Arizona.
Just like in this documentary perhaps you yourself always wanted to keep ants right where you lived but thought terrariums required the expertise and money only available through natural history museums or nature centers. Think again. It is indeed an art to maintain an ant colony. If you do it right you can join many people who do just that.
We know very little about what’s going on in underground chambers but we learned a lot from pioneering nest-casting method that Florida State University researcher Dr. Walter Tschinkel has developed:
The documentary also inserts more information about their social evolution (Eusociality) during the Cretaceous period and natural history of a few other ant species such as European wood ants, Amazonian fire ants, African driver ants and rock ants. Fire ants show one of the most impressive adaptations such as “raft forming” behavior of the Amazonian fire ants. These ants have adapted to frequently flooding environments and the colony can turn into a floating aggregate. Perhaps a remarkable example of colony democracy in action is shown by the rock ants that live in very tight rock cracks. In an experimental setting they are forced to search for a new nest site and the way they decide on the best location following astonishingly simple rules makes us think more about ourselves.
Towards the end, the documentary delves into rather introspective subjects and questions how we see ourselves through ant societies. The movies like “THEM!” or fear of loss of individuality in factory production lines is a few. Ants give us informative clues for how to optimize our distribution networks and even calculate the most efficient means of space travel using gravitational slingshot effect.
You can watch more ant related documentaries such as “The empire of the desert ants” in Nature Documentaries. In the meantime, check out this Formica palidefulva worker patrolling on a nectary of a passion flower vine: