A European Wood Ant
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Cannibal ants built a thriving society in abandoned nuclear bunker - and now they’ve escaped

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Nov 4, 2019

Stranded and left for dead years after falling into a forsaken bunker meant to house nuclear weapons, a colony of ants has apparently resorted to necrotic cannibalism not only to survive, but to thrive.

Checking in recently on a colony of Formica polyctena ants that fell into the nether depths of a decrepit, abandoned nuclear weapons storage bunker in rural Poland, a team of researchers led by Prof. Wojciech Czechowski of the Polish Academy of Science found that their numbers hadn’t shrunk at all. In fact, they’d proliferated — even though their entrapment had cut the colony off from any known source of nourishment.

Worse still — at least for anyone who shrinks at the thought of mixing insects and radiation — is that the ants, commonly called European red wood ants, apparently have now found a way out of their dark post-atomic prison. What was thought to be a tomb for a small ant colony of workers cut off from its mother nest has, instead, become the launch pad for a surface invasion of thriving cannibal critters.

Cannibals, you say? Well, scientists believe there’s nothing down in that hole that could pass for ant-food except the desiccated dead bodies of other ants. And dead ants appear to be exactly what the living fed on in order to increase their numbers and, years after being written off as yesterday’s entomological news, to finally find a way out.

As if we needed to add any more creepiness on top of cannibalism and leftover radiation, there’s even more to the story: As far as scientists know, none of these ants should have been able to reproduce in the first place. According to a recently published study in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research, all of the insects in the colony were worker ants, with nary a queen in sight.

“Neither before, nor in the time considered here were queens or offspring seen in the bunker, not even empty cocoons — only workers were present,” the study states, adding that cannibalism isn’t uncommon among wood ants when conditions — like being left alone for years in radioactive subterranean darkness — call for it.

“Our previous [2016] study also left open, how the bunker colony could survive and grow without access to foraging grounds. One evident means could be cannibalism,” the study observes. “It is known that wood [carpenter] ants consume dead bodies of their conspecifics left in masses on the ground during spectacular ‘ant wars’ early in the season. The function of such wars is to settle the borders of neighboring conspecific colonies, but the corpses also add substantially to the scarce food resources available when the colony lives commence after winter.”

As for how the ants finally made it out of there, blame an abandoned wooden structure built to navigate the bunker’s interior — carelessly left behind, no doubt, by someone who clearly lacked the foresight to divine that these ruthless insects might one day use it as a bridge to the surface world. “Using an experimentally installed boardwalk, the imprisoned ants managed to get through the ventilation pipe to their maternal nest on the top of the bunker,” the study states.

Just what the world needs: super-ants that’ve been battle-tested by the perfect cocktail of nuclear storage, pitch blackness, and the delectable dead bodies of their fallen kin. For what it’s worth, wood ants aren’t supposed to be dangerous to humans, and their bites are considered rare annoyances rather than life-threatening events (or the starting points for insect-infused superhero powers). But just to be on the safe side, we won’t be booking any walking tours in the Polish countryside anytime soon — unless we hire a cooperative anteater who’s willing to lead the way. 

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