Do ant workers ever leave their colony? (Josh, Maryland, USA)


Specifically, I am asking if there is any record of it occurring. I imagine that the odds of it happening are extremely low, if not zero!

Thank you,
Josh


Hi Josh,

Thank you very much for contacting AntAsk! Actually, this is a really good question. At first glance ant colonies seem to be organized in a standard manner, with one queen per colony. The queen has mated once and she produces workers that are all full sisters. However, when we start taking a closer look at the organization of ant colonies, there seem to be more ant species that have some kind of exceptions than the ones that don't. A really great review on this topic is the paper "The demise of the standard ant" by J├╝rgen Heinze.

There are some ant species, which don't really have a distinct queen, but special workers that lay eggs and are called "reproductives". One example is Platythyrea punctata. This ant is clonal and theoretically all the workers have the potential to become the reproductive of a colony. In these cases, a single worker could leave the colony and have her own colony. But workers don't leave the colony purposely. It is really risky to found a new colony all on their own and they have a much higher chance of success when they work as a colony. However, if the old reproductive dies, the colonies of these clonal ants can live on. When a workers gets separated by her colony and she is in good health, I suspect, she would try to start her own new colony.

Another case in which ant workers would leave their colony is when they have an infection. Some ants in the tropics might catch an infection by the entomopathogenic fungus Orthocordyceps. A great YouTube video of an infected bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) is found here. At a later stage of the infection, the fungus grows into the brain and alters the infected ant's behavior. The ant leaves the colony, climbs up to the top of a plant and secures itself with its mandibles and dies. Then, fungal fruiting bodies sprout from the dead ants head and explode releasing the spores to infect other ants and complete the fungal life-cycle.

All the best,
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

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