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Cannibal ants found in abandoned Polish nuclear bunker

They thrived for years, despite having no obvious source of food

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Cannibal ants may sound like the topic of a bad sci-fi movie but it is, in fact, steeped in reality. In 2013, scientists discovered upto a million ants trapped in a post-Soviet nuclear weapon bunker. They were all worker ants, meaning that they couldn’t reproduce. The ‘cannibal ants’ have now escaped their prison after an intervention by scientists.

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Prof. Wojciech Czechowski of the Polish Academy of Science was heading the team studying the colony of ants. They found that even cutoff from all sources of nourishment, the ants continued to thrive. Scientists  believe that the ants survived this long by feeding off their dead.

‘The present case adds a dimension to the great adaptive ability of ants to marginal habitats and suboptimal conditions,’ said Prof. Czechowski. He added that the discovery was ‘key’ to understanding the ants’ ‘unquestionable eco-evolutionary success’.

A recently publish study in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research states that all of the insects in the colony were worker ants.

“Our previous [2016] study also left open, how the bunker colony could survive and grow without access to foraging grounds. One evident means could be cannibalism,” the study observes. “It is known that wood [carpenter] ants consume dead bodies of their conspecifics left in masses on the ground during spectacular ‘ant wars’ early in the season. The function of such wars is to settle the borders of neighboring conspecific colonies, but the corpses also add substantially to the scarce food resources available when the colony lives commence after winter.”

With the intervention of scientists, the ants were able to escape through a boardwalk constructed to allow the ants to reach the ventilation pipes.

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