Kidnapper Ants Steal Other Ants' Babies - And Brainwash Them | Deep Look

Kidnapper ants raid other ant species' colonies, abduct their young and take them back to their nest. When the enslaved babies grow up, the kidnappers trick them into serving their captors – hunting, cleaning the nest, even chewing up their food for them.

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A miniature drama is playing out on the forest floor in California’s preeminent mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, at this time of year. As the sun sets, look closely and you might see a stream of red ants frantically climbing over leaves and rocks.

They aren’t looking for food. They’re looking for other ants. They’re kidnappers.

“It’s hard to know who you're rooting for in this situation,” says Kelsey Scheckel, a graduate student at UC Berkeley who studies kidnapper ants. “You're just excited to be a bystander.”

On this late summer afternoon, Scheckel stares intently over the landscape at the Sagehen Creek Field Station, part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System, near Truckee, California.“The first thing we do is try to find a colony with two very different-looking species cohabitating,” Scheckel says.

“That type of coexistence is pretty rare. As soon as we find that, we can get excited.”

--- How do ants communicate?
Ants mostly use their sense of smell to learn about the world around themselves and to recognize nestmates from intruders. They don’t have noses. Instead, they use their antennae to sense chemicals on surfaces and in the air. Ants’ antennae are porous like a kitchen sponge allowing chemicals to enter and activate receptors inside. You will often see ants tap each other with their antennae. That behavior, called antennation, helps them recognize nestmates who will share the same chemical nest signature.

---Can ants bite or sting?
Many ants will use their mandibles, or jaws, to defend themselves but that typically just feels like a pinch. Some ants have a stinger at the end of their abdomen that can deliver a venomous sting. While the type of venom can vary across species, many ants’ sting contains formic acid which causes a burning sensation. Some have special glands containing acid that can spray at attackers causing burning and alarming odors.

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Neil Tsutsui Lab of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior of Social Insects at the University of California, Berkeley

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