When Ants Grieve
Last week I went outside to take my box turtle, Bruce, for a walk.
When he finally stopped for a rest, I plopped down on the warm pavement next to him.
That was when I looked down and saw something extraordinary.
Right beside me, a colony of red ants was busily engaged in some kind of mandatory work-related conga line, hurrying back and forth with an urgency I can only attribute to being both predator and prey.
As I watched, one ant left the conga line and headed towards a small, still, upturned red ant body. He circled the body, then, in one swift movement, lifted the clearly dead ant up over his head.
He wobbled. Walked a few steps. Wobbled some more. Dropped the ant. Picked it back up again. Walked a few more wobbly steps.
At last he and his fallen ant comrade made it over to a crack in the concrete. A few small leafy plants had sprung up in the dirt there, providing a bit of ant-sized shade.
The exhausted ant gently tucked his comrade’s body underneath the shade of the leaves. He walked away.
Then he walked back, examined the placement of the body, and reached out to adjust the position of the leaves so they were just so. He walked away again.
And then he returned one more time, just to check that all was to his satisfaction.
He then left and rejoined the conga line, at which point I lost track of him.
But I’ve been thinking about what he did ever since.
Of course I googled “ants burying their dead” immediately. The information I found suggests that ant colonies that follow this practice enjoy lower rates of death and disease than colonies that do not.
But this research referred to how ant bodies that die inside the colony are disposed of….or not. Nothing I read discussed what ants do with fallen colony-mates that die outside in the great outdoors.
Supposedly, those ant colonies that remove dead ants from the colony do so by stacking them in neat piles (presumably somewhere outside the colony). This is fascinating – ants seem to have as strong a penchant for neatness as I do.
But here again, the ant I saw did not pile the dead ant on top of other bodies. The ant buried the body under a leaf, and then went back to check on the coverage twice before returning to its colony mates.
I guess the question I’m asking is, “do ants grieve?” Or is it a purely chemical reaction (as in, dead ants will emit a “death smell” after 2 days that signals worker ants in charge of such things to cart them away)?
My reasons for asking this include more than just the experience of watching one lone red ant struggle and sweat (theoretically speaking) to bury a colony-mate.
After many decades of loud scientific warnings not to “anthropomorphize” (assign human qualities to non-human things/beings) animals, it turns out that perhaps many of the qualities we’ve considered to be uniquely “human” were actually passed down to us – gifts from our fellow non-human predecessors.
For example, we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees.
And we share 33 percent of our DNA with ants.
It may not ever become possible to communicate with ants to the level where we could inquire about whether they feel sadness or find meaning beyond base survival in burying their dead.
Nevertheless, something fundamental inside of me resonated as I watched that lone red ant struggle and strain to tuck the dead ant away safely. Maybe it was that 33 percent of our shared DNA that said, “I know what you are going through. And I wish I could help.”
Maybe someday I will understand why it felt like that ant was mentoring me in some powerful, necessary way.
I hope someday I will understand.
Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever witnessed something similar to what I saw the red ant doing? Has there ever been a time when a non-human being did something and you felt such kinship, even though you couldn’t dig up any real evidence to support it? What do you think about concepts such as “anthropomorphism?” Are they helpful or harmful or both?
Cutts, S. (2017). When Ants Grieve. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mentoring-recovery/2016/08/when-ants-grieve/