Trapped in a Nuclear Bunker, Wood Ants Turned to Cannibalism to Survive

Escaping after years stuck in the abandoned bunker, the ants' behavior is expected to change.
Fabienne Lang

If you were trapped for years in an abandoned bunker with a few friends, what would you do to survive? Probably anything — including cannibalism.

A "colony" (but only workers were discovered) of wood ants found themselves in this exact predicament. A group of scientists from the Museum and Institute of Zoology and the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poland discovered that the ants survived off of eating their own nestmates. 


How did the wood ants find themselves in this predicament?

The discovery of the ants in the Polish abandoned nuclear weapon bunker dates back to 2013. The scientific report on the findings at the time was published in 2016, in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

The scientists discovered hundreds of thousands of worker ants in the bunker. The insects had repeatedly been falling down into the bunker through a ventilation pipe near their nest at the top of the bunker. 

Discovered again a few years later by scientist Prof. Wojciech Czechowski, a team of scientists saw that the ants had not only survived but thrived in the same environment. As food and other usual survival resources such as light and heat were lacking entirely, the team could only deduce that the ants were living off of their dead brethren corpses. 

In their newly published paper, the team shares how they looked into finding out how these ants survived. Cannibalism was at the forefront of their minds when they began their research. 

Their findings are published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

Cannibalism in ants isn't so far-fetched

During springtime, when food resources are still low, ants are known for changing their regular behavior and feeding off of each other. These are known as 'ant wars.' 

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These wars serve to provide food resources from dead ants, as well as creating boundaries between neighboring ant colonies. 

The bunker ants that were discovered in Poland had no access to food supplies, so the scientists could confidently deduce that they were eating dead nestmates. 

Back in 2016, the team of scientists built a small boardwalk to enable the ants to freely move up and down between the bunker and the maternal nest. As of 2017, the ants have adopted this form of movement, and now scientists are curious to observe their behavior.

Will cannibalism prevail?