While insects are perhaps the most overlooked animal group in the world, they are also by far the most numerous. From butterflies to beetles, they inhabit almost every ecosystem on Earth and there’s one group that might have created the largest civilization right under our feet.
The Formicidae family contains roughly 12,000 species of ants. Despite the wealth and variety of species, ants all follow the same basic body plan with each species living in socially complex constructed colonies. These industrious little insects have capabilities as a social group far beyond their tiny individual bodies.
To give an idea of just how widespread and capable ants are, researchers suggest that one-third of the animal biomass of the Amazon rainforest is made up entirely of ants and termites.
While there are some variations between the different species, most colonies follow the same hierarchy with a caste system including workers, soldiers, ergatoid queens, and queens. These different castes have morphological differences and are specially adapted to their different roles within the colony.
The queen is responsible for laying the colonies eggs, but she is not responsible for telling each ant what to do. Instead, these insects are biologically suited for a specific job, and use their exceptional communication abilities to carry out their duties. While they are suited for a specific job it doesn’t mean they can’t progress in their careers. The species Camponotus fellah was found in a 2013 study progressing from roles as nurses to nest cleaners and then to foragers throughout their lifespan.
Perhaps most famous is the species of ant known as leafcutters in the genera Atta and Acromyrmex, which can carry 10-50 times their body weight – this might be a conservative estimate though. Engineers in 2014 found that the neck joint of an American field ant could withstand pressure 5,000 times greater than their body weight.
As well as organized societies and phenomenal strength, ants are also farmers. They actively protect groups of aphids from predators such as ladybirds, while in turn, the aphids create a substance called honeydew by feeding on the sap of trees. This honeydew can form as much as 90 percent of an ant's diet so this relationship is incredibly important.
As social insects, ants are pretty good at looking after their own. According to New Scientist, in Matabele ant (Megaponera analis) colonies, foraging ant parties who are injured, usually by termites, are then helped back to the colony and treated by other ants to help them recover.
Ants also engage in a behavior known as necrophoresis; they have specialized undertaker ants that remove dead ant bodies from the colony to prevent the spread of pathogens to other ants. Harvester ants even have a complex stacking system for their dead.
So ants are incredible builders, forming super colonies of up to 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) and fire ants even make rafts from their bodies to escape floods. Ant society has jobs and career progression, it has defensive strategies like playing dead and even care for the elderly and deceased.
Moreover, ants manage to do all of this without any form of government or direct leadership but have persisted far longer and far more successfully than other species that evolved roughly 140 to 168 million years ago (looking at you dinosaurs). Maybe they are the pioneers of one of the greatest civilizations on Earth.