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These Ants Are Natural-Born Heroes

Aug 08, 2014 06:35 PM EDT
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A little-known species of ant in Madagascar may be the most heroic little bug the world has ever seen. In order to defend its nest from potential intruders, it literally grabs hold of them and leaps off a cliff.

These fearless little buggers, Malagidris sofina, are only found in a few fragmented forest habitats in north-west Madagascar. They reportedly had been relatively ignored by entomologists until the University of Oklahoma's Jackson Helms led a study of the ants that began in 2013.

The study was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Insectes Sociaux.

According to Helms and his team of researchers, these unique ants build their nests in the sides of cliffs or steep boulders. They can be found up to nearly 10 feet off the ground, characterized by a funnel-shaped entrance that is built to stick out less than an inch away from the cliff face.

The researchers were trying to determine why some ant species tend to build this funneled entrance design when they stumbled upon these ants' unbelievable defensive strategy, according to New Scientist.

The study details how, when a foreign insect or other ant species tries to enter the ant nest, workers were quick to respond - grabbing hold of the intruder with their mandibles and then throwing themselves, intruder still in tow, off the cliff.

Ants are remarkably hearty. They can lift objects many times their own weight and, thanks to their exoskeletons, they can fall distances several times their length without a scratch. The idea of this strategy is that while the fall likely won't harm the invader (as long as it's another ant), it will make it much harder for the invader to navigate back up to the nest. Meanwhile, the worker ants have taken this trip dozens of times before. Following the pheromones of their fellow workers, they can easily find their way back up the cliff face.

Interestingly, Helms found that M. sofina workers ignored or retreated before ants of their own species, even if they were from a rival nest.

Whether this is because the workers simply are not sensitive enough to detect so similar an intruder, or if the ants just "know" in their own way that the martyr-ish act won't work on another M. sofina, remains to be seen. 

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