Nature

Wood Ants Trapped in a Nuclear Weapon Bunker are “Living Beyond the Limits of Survival”

August 30, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

ants
Photo credit: Wojciech Stephan (CC BY 4.0)

Extreme insects survive under seemingly unliveable conditions.

Scientists have found an extreme colony of wood ants that have flourished under conditions thought to be beyond their limits of existence — the ants have set up shop underground, in an old nuclear weapon bunker in Poland, after having fallen down a vertical ventilation pipe.

The colony was discovered in 2013, and the researchers estimate that it now boasts close to a million ants.

Their unusual lodgings don’t seem to bother the worker ants, who have been going about their normal lives, even keeping up with nest repairs. “In total darkness, they have constructed an earthen mound, which they have maintained all-year-round by moulding it and keeping the nest entrances open,” the researchers write in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

If the lack of light hasn’t phased these ants, the lack of food certainly should. The researchers note that potential food in the bunker is limited to exceedingly scarce bat droppings and small mites — a far cry from the wood ants’ usual energy-rich diet of aphid honeydew, which is abundant in the coniferous forests above.

“Judging from the huge deposits of wood-ant corpses in the bunker, the ‘colony’ has survived for years,” the researchers write. Yet, with conditions so severe, reproduction in the bunker is deemed to be highly unlikely. Rather, the colony appears to receive constant input of new worker ants that fall down the ventilation pipe. In fact, these newcomers are outpacing bunker worker deaths, resulting in a growing colony.

Amazingly, this may not even be the most extreme wood ant colony out there. As the authors point out, one colony was discovered living in almost complete darkness within a cubic wooden box with no openings apart from a single narrow slit. Another survived for nearly 30 years on a barren islet, where the aphids inhabiting the islet’s single pine tree provided the colony’s only food.

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