Weird and sort of sad: A kind of desert-island ant colony
Annalee Newitz writes in Ars Technica:
For the past several years, a group of researchers has been observing a seemingly impossible wood ant colony living in an abandoned nuclear weapons bunker in Templewo, Poland, near the German border. Completely isolated from the outside world, these members of the speciesFormica polyctena have created an ant society unlike anything we’ve seen before.
The Soviets built the bunker during the Cold War to store nuclear weapons, sinking it below ground and planting trees on top as camouflage. Eventually a massive colony of wood ants took up residence in the soil over the bunker. There was just one problem: the ants built their nest directly over a vertical ventilation pipe. When the metal covering on the pipe finally rusted away, it left a dangerous, open hole. Every year when the nest expands, thousands of worker ants fall down the pipe and cannot climb back out. The survivors have nevertheless carried on for years underground, building a nest from soil and maintaining it in typical wood ant fashion. Except, of course, that this situation is far from normal.
Polish Academy of Sciences zoologist Wojciech Czechowski and his colleagues discovered the nest after a group of other zoologists found that bats were living in the bunker. Though it was technically not legal to go inside, the bat researchers figured out a way to squeeze into the small, confined space and observe the animals inside. Czechowski’s team followed suit when they heard that the place was swarming with ants. What they found, over two seasons of observation, was a group of almost a million worker ants whose lives are so strange that they hesitate to call them a “colony” in the observations they just published in The Journal of Hymenoptera. Because conditions in the bunker are so harsh, constantly cold, and mostly barren, the ants seem to live in a state of near-starvation. They produce no queens, no males, and no offspring. The massive group tending the nest is entirely composed of non-reproductive female workers, supplemented every year by a new rain of unfortunate ants falling down the ventilation shaft.
Like most ant species, wood ants are tidy animals who remove waste from their colony. In the case of the bunker ants, most of this waste is composed of dead bodies. The researchers speculate that mortality in the “colony” is likely much higher than under normal circumstances. “Flat parts of the earthen mound [of the nest] and the floor of the adjacent spaces … were carpeted with bodies of dead ants,” write Czechowski and colleagues. This “ant cemetery” was a few centimeters thick in places, and “one cubic decimeter sample contained [roughly] 8,000 corpses,” which led the researchers to suggest that there were likely 2 million dead ants piled around the nest mound. The sheer numbers of dead bodies suggest that this orphaned wood ant nest has been active for many years.
The ant graveyard is also host to a tiny ecosystem, where . . .
There’s a science-fiction short story in there someplac