Scientists have reported on a unique colony of ants found in an abandoned nuclear weapons bunker in Poland, which survived by eating the remains of its own dead members.
The colony was created when ants from an outdoor nest nearby fell into the bunker through a ventilation pipe that came through the ceiling. Once inside, they had no means of escape nor any obvious source of food, and appear to have survived by consuming their dead fellow colonists – the supply of which was continually replenished by more ants falling down the pipe.
In their paper reporting the findings, the international team of scientists, led by Professor Wojciech Czechowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences, estimate the size of the colony at around one million ants, with the “cemeteries” inside the bunker containing the remains of a further two million or so.
No queens, offspring or empty cocoons were discovered, with the colony made up entirely of workers (meaning it was not technically a colony).
The scientists also report on how they enabled the trapped ants to mount an escape. After releasing 100 of the ants from the bunker to “check relations” with their original colony outside, the team then used a wooden board to help the remaining captives climb back out through the ventilation shaft they had arrived in.
The scholars note that their findings add to our understanding of “the great adaptive ability of ants to marginal habitats and suboptimal conditions”, while also shedding further light on cannibalism as a survival technique among social insects.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.