PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Giant blue ants that are smart enough to form lines to transport their prey may sound like science fiction. But researchers Saturday released the first ever study of Leptogenys, a species of ant that meets this description and lives deep in Cambodia’s forests.
The ants form chains – much like a team of tug-of-war players – to pull giant millipedes, weighing up to 16.4 grams, back to their nests. A few ants grasp the millipede with their mandibles, while the rest pull on the first ant from behind. The chains can stretch more than 20 ants long, making Leptogeny the first species of ant in the world that uses this kind of teamwork to transport its prey.
Famed ant expert Christian Peeters, together with bioengineer and photographer Stéphane de Greef, first discovered the Leptogenys in 2010. They moved on to other research, until Leptogenys gained internet fame in 2014, when a video of the ants dragging a massive millipede got more than 200,000 views. Seeing their ant’s new celebrity, Mr. Peeters and Mr. de Greef decided it was time to research the mysterious new species more thoroughly.
Finding an ant in Cambodia’s acres of forest is easier than one would expect – at least if the ants are large, blue, and form lines to pull giant millipedes. In late 2014, Mr. de Greef took time off work to explore the forests in Siem Reap province in search of the ants, and discovered them after a few days.
After finding the ants, Mr. Peeters and Mr. de Greef began closely observing them as they hunted. They saw them form unique “daisy chain” links to pull their prey back to the nest after it was killed. Though ants that form chains while building nests have been found elsewhere, this is the first species of ant that builds a chain while hunting. By forming lines, the ants could hunt and transport larger species of millipede.
“Chains allow Leptogenys ants to hunt a new kind of prey that other ant species just cannot,” Mr. Peeters said.
This is just the beginning of Mr. Peeters and Mr. de Greef’s research into these bizarre blue ants. Mr. Peeters said he hopes to work with “collective transport specialists” to learn more about how the ants transport things. “For example, if we increase the weight of a millipede, or add obstacles on the ground, will the chains become longer?” he asked. “It is already clear that the ants can quickly adapt the length and number of chains.”
“These are very large ants who are performing some amazing feats,” Mr. de Greef said. “It just shows how little we know about Cambodia’s amazing biodiversity.”
Predation on large millipedes and self-assembling chains in Leptogenys ants from Cambodia from Stephane De Greef on Vimeo.