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Saturday, 9 November 2019

Ants trapped for years in a bunker survived in an absolutely terrible way


In the woods of western Poland is a Soviet nuclear base dismantled, which includes two underground bunkers in which nuclear munitions were once kept ... After the military complex was abandoned, these strange artificial grottoes became resting places for them. overwintering bats.

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In the early 2010s, volunteers began to visit these bunkers to monitor the bats population in winter, and discovered a different type of inhabitant ...: a huge mass of wood ants ( Formica polyctena ) trapped on the floor of the bunker, survivor without a queen nor any of their usual comforts. So how did these creatures survive without light and without food ...?

When it was discovered in 2013, this "colony" of underground ants already had about a million living workers and several million dead ... Namely that they did not reproduce: instead, the population had been reconstituted by accident .

The ant colony of the bunker, with a real "cemetery" against the back wall. Credits: Wojciech Stephan / Czechowski et al./Journal of Hymenoptera Research

In the ceiling of the bunker was a rusty ventilation duct, connecting the dark room to the forest above. A colony of giant ants had built a mound on the ground just above the bunker vent, and as the metal rusted, part of their ranks began to fall into the concrete cavern below. ...

The ventilation pipe located on the ceiling of the bunker. Credits: Rutkowski et al./Journal of Hymenoptera Research

The study of the limits of the living conditions of ants is of great interest to some entomologists. For several years, researchers have visited the bunker several times and watched with fascination as this isolated population continued to grow and survive despite a clear lack of light, heat and food.


Now scientists finally know how these trapped insects managed to survive: the mass consumption of their own imprisoned nestmates ...  Cannibalism was suspected by the researchers: you should know that these ant-woods are, after all, the the only major source of food available in this restricted area, other than occasionally dead mice or bats. Moreover, it is known that this particular species consumes its own fallen dead in territorial " ant wars ", and when food is scarce.

To confirm this intuition, a team of researchers collected the bodies of several ants, scattered in the bunker. Looking closely at 150 dead workers, the team found that the vast majority of bodies (about 93%) had holes (as gnawed) and bite marks.

Scientists confirm that these are obvious signs of mass consumption, with virtually no other body in the bunker able to leave these marks.

" The survival and growth of the bunker 'colony' over the years, without producing its own offspring, has been possible thanks to a continuous supply of new workers from the upper nest and an accumulation of corpses,  " concluded the researchers. "  The corpses were an inexhaustible source of food, which allowed the survival of the trapped ants under otherwise extremely unfavorable conditions,  " they added.

The colony built above the ventilation pipe. Credits: Czechowski et al./Journal of Hymenoptera Research

According to the results of the researchers, it seems that the wood ants can face a remarkable adversity to survive. But, fortunately for this colony, the individuals the populated are no longer obliged to fend for themselves: in 2016, the researchers installed a wooden ramp (which can be seen in the image below) in the bunker, connecting the ventilation pipe to the ground. After four months, almost all the trapped ants had deserted the floor of the bunker.

Here is the help given to the ants trapped in the bunker (a simple piece of wood, allowing them to get out of the bunker of death ...). Credits: Rutkowski et al./Journal of Hymenoptera Research

Indeed, now, ants that have the misfortune to fall into the dark bunker, will no longer be forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. They can simply go out and go quietly to their occupation on the surface, in the open air, with their companions.

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