National Geographic : 2011 May
maneuvers to grab and pull a leg or antenna. Within moments, half a dozen or more majors will have the victim---be it so -winged moth, scout from a foreign ant colony, or burly scor- pion---spread-eagled, stretched beyond its lim- its, and about to be ripped apart. A couple more sisters gnaw at weak points to hasten the job. Holding the pieces alo , workers join the river of ants owing back toward a nest laden with prizes from other hunts. e heaviest chunks are carried by groups that somehow keep coor- dinated, even as some team members leave and new workers join in. All the while, different platoons are out tending scale insects and other homopterans (sucking insects that feed on plant juices). e shepherds physically carry this livestock to prime pastures, guard the herds vigilantly from enemies, and gather special droplets of sugar- rich syrup, known as honeydew, that the bugs excrete. Like every bounty, it is then carried o to be shared with nest mates---added to the communal gut. Even the stodgiest scientists are growing more comfortable with the notion of the ant col- ony as a superorganism. Mo ett's musings lean further out. He keeps trying to explain to me how weaver ants operate in an Einsteinian uni- verse where space bends and warps. Mentally shrink yourself to ant size and set out walking on a leaf. It's a two-dimensional plane, except that it curves and twists and a er a while sud- denly falls o into thin air. No matter, you just climb over the edge and keep walking on the underside, then wend your way down a stem to another curling green surface. "Weaver ants weigh so little, they're scarcely a ected by gravity," Mo ett says. " e rocking of branches in the wind is a stronger force to them, so they o en don't know which way is down. But if an ant wants to go from one tree to the next, there's a huge gap relative to its size. It might have to travel all the way to the ground, back up again, and then out on another branch. What Oecophylla o en does, though, is get a bunch of buddies together to form an air bridge and cross directly to the other side." Moffett may be the only person who per- ceives ants in Star Wars hyperspace, short- circuiting the usual rules of time and gravity. Still, the rest of us can look almost anywhere and see an ant crawling around and be remind- ed that nature has invented many ways for ani- mals to be powerful and multitudes of ways for them to be smart. j They can tear apart a well-armored African driver ant at least twice their size (below), and they rear up aggressively at a looming photographer (left). Whatever the threat, weaver ants fight together: The first defenders stand tall and emit pheromones that draw their sisters to battle. n Society Grant Mark Moffett's research on weaver ants was funded in part by your Society membership.