Forget everything you’ve always believed about ants, or almost. When you observe a colony in the garden or forest, you get the impression that the lives of each of them are well regulated, that they do their job without deviating. It almost looks like a hierarchical company with a very human idea that we will find at its head a queen, warm in the CEO’s costume, ready to give good points by appointing her most deserving staff.
In fact, among these living beings, who appeared more than 100 million years ago, there are also rebels, but also lazy people and even superfighters. “In short, the ant colony is organized chaos! », Audrey Dussutour and Antoine Wystrach decide from the first pages of their book Odyssey of ants. These two myrmecologists from Toulouse guide readers along the path of some of the 13,000 species identified today, which are hand-picked. Opus with scientific content that reads like an adventure and sci-fi novel.
They can defeat prey that is up to 10,000 times their weight, and we are discovered again by doctors, drug addicts or even suicide bombers. This is the case Kolobopsis who do not hesitate to explode their belly and release a poison that can knock out several opponents. Nest protection victim.
In their book, which focused on 75 species, both scientists decided to focus on the feed, these grandmothers, who come out of the anthill to find food for the youngest busy caring for larvae and organizing an anthill. Especially men who, unlike the image of the heroes presented in the cartoons 1001 feet and Antzare “placed, fed, bleached”.
These workers then take all the risks. Not easy stormtroopers, with a brain no bigger than a pinhead, they can do incredible things for the colony. “They are creatures who are able to solve incredible challenges and often we have no idea about them. For example, they have controlled agriculture for millions of years, they use antibiotics, they can build traps. Colonies are not societies, but families, because they are all genetically linked, and when a colony works, it works for a common goal, ”insists Laure Dussutour.
But because they are also very different from each other, they use very different means. Some, equipped with almost 360-degree eyes, use them to map terrain in timelapse mode. Others, the blind, use their olfactory system and collective to reach their prey.
Lesser known species Camponotus atriceps managed to make friends with a butterfly caterpillar, Anatole rossi. It was ecologist Gary Ross who made this discovery while watching this butterfly in Veracruz, Mexico. The caterpillar eliminates mead when the little shepherds make love to it and in exchange take care of it by creating a kind of sheepfold where it hides. “He observed this cooperation between caterpillars and ants, an absolutely fascinating connection. It tells the story of a little sheepfold, where ants guard the caterpillar during the day and where it comes out at night. Even during metamorphosis, it protects it, “says Audrey Dussutour.
Sometimes psychopathic, often inspiring
If they highlight all the abilities of these little beasts, the two authors of this fantastic odyssey did not overlook the slightly less friendly side of the ants. We discover them as slaveholders. With species whose queens have nothing to envy the very bloody Maria Tudor. Half psychopaths, this Epimyrma don’t hesitate to pretend they died at the door of their cousins’ nests. He will bring them back inside. And here he reveals his true face and murders the workers. “She then strangles the nest queen for two or three months to keep her alive. Everyone has their own strategy, someone throws stones in the face of others, “laughs the scientist.
Scenario good Game of Thronesin which their bodies can become weapons. As in the case of the spherical ant, whose sting can faint even the strongest. Or the fiery ant that invaded the United States and destroyed the electrical circuits of many buildings. They attack en masse and their bites can cause allergies, even death by anaphylactic shock.
Nothing to do with Tapinoma, this little black ant, who is having fun at the moment, planted it in houses in Corsica or Brittany. “It breaks into houses, harasses people, but does not cause damage. Don’t leave food lying, it attracts them. No matter how much pheromone traces they leave behind, you will bleach them, creating new ones, ”emphasizes the Toulouse myrmecologist.
Rather than get rid of it, he advocates living with it. And be inspired by it. As is the case with some researchers who have used algorithms provided for telecommunications or nest architecture. Or, more recently, the ability of some of them to differentiate tumor cells through the olfactory system. “They are especially useful for the ecosystem we are part of. They are very responsible for aerating the soil, spreading the seeds, and often we don’t mean pollination, ”concludes Audrey Dussutour. Meditate when one is tempted to send a proper kick to the anthill.