To Stay Alive, Ants Dump Their Dead

AntsHousekeeping can be a matter of life and death—at least for social animals like ants, a new paper suggests.

According to a study published Tuesday in the journal Biology Letters, common red ants (Myrmica rubra) that were prevented from removing their nestmates’ corpses died more frequently than those allowed to bring out their dead.

The tiny ants—each roughly the size of a medium-grain rice kernel—live under rocks and logs in densely packed colonies. More than a thousand worker ants can be found in a single nest.

These insects reap many benefits from group living, as they work together to gather food, care for their queen, and defend their nest.

But the situation also puts them at risk of being hit by disease epidemics: If one individual in the colony comes down with an illness, the blight can spread rapidly. This places a premium on good hygiene.

Many insects habitually remove dead nestmates from their colony. Scientists have long assumed that this behavior is based on a need to keep the rest of the colony healthy. But until now that idea hadn’t been put to a formal test.

The new study, conducted by researchers at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Université de Liège in Belgium, tested the health benefits of corpse removal in common red ant colonies kept in artificial nests.

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