As I’ve mentioned before, living in a large densely-packed social group, like a city or an ant colony, comes with some drawbacks – perhaps worst of which is the risk of catching a contagious diseases. Earlier this year I wrote about research showing that raider ants treat injured workers’ wounds, helping them to heal. Now, a new study shows that the queen can pass on resistance to diseases she’s encountered, arming her workers against pathogens.
I’ve spent more time than most observing ants, and I’ve come to find them ‘cute’ – something few other people understand, and that is often hard to convey. So it’s nice to find a paper that offers the opportunity to give people a glimpse into the cuteness I see in ant behaviour.
Ants clean the wounds of injured nest mates, often saving their lives and keeping infection out of the colony.
To even the most casual observer, it is clear that people are not homogenous in their behaviour, and that this goes beyond possible nurture influences such as cultural upbringing. Individuals vary in their behaviour in a consistent manner; some people are generally more aggressive, friendly and adventurous in every aspect of their lives. So obvious is this observation that we even have a word for it – personality. Likewise, anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the company of animals will almost certainly acknowledge that they are not all the same. The extent to which this is apparent varies from species to species, of course, but the observation is not a revolutionary one. And yet, until relatively recently the concept of ‘personality’ in non-human animals was revolutionary. And it has had to work hard to shake off the criticism of anthropomorphism and pseudoscience.
It was long assumed that animals were infinitely plastic in their behaviour, being able to respond adaptively to all environments. When people actually started to look, however, it became apparent that this wasn’t the case. Individuals showed substantial variation in their responses to certain events and environments, and these responses were not always adaptive. There was a strong correlation however, in the responses of a single individual over time. Personality, you say?
Social behaviour in animals is not uncommon, and we are rarely surprised to observe cooperation in nature. However, most explanations for cooperative behaviour rely upon a certain level of cognitive ability. Cooperating willy-nilly leaves individuals open to cheaters, so successful and long-term cooperation between individuals often relies upon individual recognition. Many social groups are composed of relatives. This makes a lot of sense, as helping relatives yields benefits without the need for reciprocation in the future, because relatives share genes. But still, you might expect that even this requires basic intelligence – you need to be able to recognise who are your relatives.