From your nightmares: One million wood ants who had lived for decades in a nuclear bunker by eating their dead nestmates have escaped.
The ants had been falling into the bunker via a ventilation pipe under their actual nest. Once they fell down the pipe, there was no way for them to escape the bunker, Newsweek reported.
The colony was first discovered in 2013 by Polish scientists led by Wojciech Czechowski, a scholar with the Museum and Institute of Zoology and the Polish Academy of Sciences. Czechwoski and his team were actually surveying bats living in decades-old Soviet nuclear bunkers when they discovered the ants. The team studied the ants and published their findings in the “Journal of Hymenoptera Research.”
The scientists returned to the bunker two years later to view the ants and discovered it had grown despite no available food source or heat or even light. The team estimated there may have been as many as one million ants now living in the abandoned bunker.
As Newsweek reported, ants have set up colonies in unusual places, such as the chassis of a car, but those ants were able to leave their confined space and return as they please. The ants in the bunker could not.
“The masses of Formica polyctena workers trapped in the bunker had no choice,” Czechwoski’s team wrote in their study. “They were merely surviving and continuing their social tasks on the conditions set by the extreme environment.”
The team began studying the ants in 2016 and installed a board leading to a separate ventilation pipe so the ants could leave. In 2017, the team found that the ants had all left the bunker.
“The team inspected the corpses that had been left behind and found bite marks and holes, mostly in the abdomen,” Newsweek reported. “This, they said, was evidence that the ants were eating their deceased nestmates in order to survive.”
All of the ants in the bunker were workers, so there was no way they could have reproduced. The growing numbers had to have come from the nest above.
“The survival and growth of the bunker ‘colony’ through the years, without producing own offspring, was possible owing to continuous supply of new workers from the upper nest and accumulation of nestmate corpses,” the team wrote in their study. “The corpses served as an inexhaustible source of food which substantially allowed survival of the ants trapped down in otherwise extremely unfavourable conditions.”
The case highlights the extreme survival instincts of the species.
“More generally, the present case adds a dimension to the great adaptive ability of ants to marginal habitats and suboptimal conditions, as the key to understanding their unquestionable eco-evolutionary success,” the researchers wrote.
The original nest is still in place, meaning ants are still falling into the bunker, but due to the escape route established by the researchers, the ants are now able to escape back to their nest. It is unclear at this time whether the colony still has cannibalistic tendancies.