Royal undertakers of the ant world | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 20.10.2017
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Environment

Royal undertakers of the ant world

Ants are known by turns as tiny industrious creatures, pests, and amazing team workers. But a new study shows they are also quite the little funeral directors.

Ant queens are special. Not only in name, but in nature. So special that they generally stay away from any tasks deemed to pose a risk to their health. Tasks such as burying the dead. But new research conducted by scientists at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria has revealed that in situations where two ant queens co-found a colony and one dies before the first workers report for duty, the other one slips into the role of undertaker.

More specifically, this means they observed behavior such as biting and burying the regal corpse, possibly as a means of preventing the transmission of pathogens. The study, which was published in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, found that biting and burial implied the remaining queen was seven times more likely to survive.

Ant larvae

A healthy queen equals a healthy colony

The study on the behavior of black garden ant queens, which regularly form colonies in pairs, revealed that if they shared a single chamber when one died, 74 percent of the remaining healthy insects would bite the deceased into pieces. Slightly fewer — 67 percent — would then go on to bury the dismembered body.

Read more: The superpowers of Costa Rica's leaf-cutter ant

In cases where the two queens did not share a single chamber, only 22 percent bit and buried the dead, while 78 percent removed the body from the nesting chamber.

Avoiding illness is important for ant queens, because, as the authors explained, if they are fighting infection, their reproductive success could be compromised, and with it, the success of the entire colony.

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