Those corners of the internet prone to viral outbreaks are abuzz today with an intriguing ant video:
Is it real? Yes.
The quality isn’t great, but the clip appears to show an Asian Leptogenys daisy-chaining their bodies in parallel lines to haul away a large millipede. I have spent the morning searching the technical literature for mention of this unusual behavior, and am coming up empty. Some Leptogenys species, including L. diminuta, L. nitida, and L. processionalis, are known to forage in groups and transport prey “cooperatively” (source, source). What is meant by “cooperative” is often vague. (For more, see this excellent recent review of cooperative transport by Helen McCreery). Yet I didn’t find any explicit description of workers linking up, mandible to abdomen, to pull together.
Is ponerine daisy-chaining an unknown behavior? Possibly. It is also possible my search skills aren’t up to the task. If you know of a description of it, please drop a note in the comments. I am not the only one interested, either:
I did, however, happen across a higher quality video from a Cambodian beekeeper:
I presume the swelling music helps motivate the ants to pull harder. But, I digress.
Steve Shattuck took a photograph recently in Borneo capturing a variation on this behavior, with workers forming a chain by biting the legs of a preceding ant.
Again, I don’t think the behavior has been formally described beyond this smattering of visual media.
Regardless of documentation, daisy chaining raises some definitely unanswered questions and will make a fine Ph.D. thesis for some lucky student. How do ants organize themselves in chains? What cues do they use? How do they know to let go? Is chaining employed only for particular sizes or species of prey? How does the behavior effect overall foraging efficiency? What are the evolutionary precursors to chaining? And, do these ants have any other tricks up their coxae?
***Update 8/30/2014 –
In the comments, Roberto Keller suggested that the eminent ponerophile Christian Peeters might know something. And indeed, Christian emails in with the following:
I observed this fascinating behaviour in Cambodia 4 years ago. Stéphane De Greef was with me and some of his photos are attached.
The behaviour was very stereotyped: mandibles grab preceding ant’s gaster (between first and second segment).
Seiki Yamane identified it as Leptogenys sp. 47, closely related to L. chalybaea described from Borneo by Emery (but stronger sculpture especially on gastral tergites).
The millipedes were 130mm long, identified as order Spirostreptida (Diplopoda). Ant is 16mm long.
Back then I reviewed the literature and found no other record of chain behaviour in Ponerinae. No record of millipede predation in Leptogenys. Specialized hunting on millipedes is restricted to Thaumatomyrmex, Probolomyrmex and Gnamptogenys, but these are solitary hunters on a very different kind of millipedes (polyxenids).
I started writing a ms on this behaviour (formation of chains in ants through a self-assembling behaviour) but sadly I have not been able to get further observations. It seems to happen at certain times of the year only.
By an amazing coincidence, two days ago I finished fieldwork in northern Thailand and came across the same Leptogenys species. There were cleaned out ring segments of big millipedes outside entrances. Unfortunately I did not observe any raids.
postscript: The virality of the video also illustrates both the good and the bad about the internet. The good, of course, is that this fascinating ant behavior found its way in front of scientists who otherwise might not have seen it. On the other hand, the viral nature of the video means that actual person who filmed it is drowned out among the hundreds of uncredited, unsourced copies. Securing the information about where and when the video was taken, and verifying the species, is going to be difficult. This is one reason why crediting sources online is important. Lose the credit, lose the data.