Previous: Is Burnt Toast Really Bad for You?
Next: 3 Great Minds We Lost in 2018



View count:774
Last sync:2018-12-27 17:10
The ant world is an incredible, dangerous, and downright bizarre place. Some ants, though, are a lot cooler and more resourceful than you might give them credit for.

Hosted by: Michael Aranda

Special thanks to Dr. Adrian Smith of for giving us special permission to highlight his video ( in #1.

SciShow has a spinoff podcast! It's called SciShow Tangents. Check it out at
Support SciShow by becoming a patron on Patreon:
Dooblydoo thanks go to the following Patreon supporters: Alex Hackman, Andrew Finley Brenan, Lazarus G, Sam Lutfi, D.A. Noe, الخليفي سلطان, Piya Shedden, KatieMarie Magnone, Scott Satovsky Jr, Charles Southerland, Patrick D. Ashmore, charles george, Kevin Bealer, Chris Peters
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?

[♪ INTRO].

Skull-gathering hunters. Exploding, toxic defenders.

Inflictors of pain. These aren’t characters from a movie: They’re ants! Normally, we see ants streaming from cracks in the sidewalk, or coming to forage through our kitchens, and they’re nothing out of the ordinary.

At most, they’re kind of annoying. But some ants are actually amazing, and are a lot cooler and more resourceful than you might give them credit for. Here are seven of the most extreme species from around the world.

Some people use tapestries and fun knick-knacks to decorate their homes. But Florida’s skull-collecting ant adorns its abode with, skulls. Well, more specifically, heads and other dismembered body parts from other ant species.

Which is… a mood, I guess. Scientists discovered this in the 1950s, and noticed that most of the victims seemed to be trap-jaw ants, which was equally impressive and alarming, because trap-jaws aren’t easy prey. They’re known for their exceptionally strong mandibules, which they use to crush their victims and even fling themselves away from danger.

Meanwhile, skull-collecting ants look far less fearsome. They’re pretty small, and they definitely don’t have super strong jaws. Researchers were intrigued by how these ants were adorning their homes with trap-jaw body parts.

They weren’t sure if they were actually killing them, or just inheriting old trap-jaw nests. But recently, they started to figure it out. In November 2018, one researcher published new findings in the journal of the IUSSI, an organization that studies social insects.

By analyzing the chemicals on their bodies and filming their interactions with trap-jaws, he found that skull-collecting ants chemically mimic their trap-jaw prey. The difference between their odors is almost indistinguishable, and that allows the skull collectors to get in close enough to attack. Once they’re in close range, they spray the trap-jaws with formic acid and paralyze them.

Then, they drag their limp bodies back to their nests, dismember them, and put their exoskeletons on display like hunting trophies. Researchers aren’t sure why they do this, but it could be a warning to other ants. And let’s be real: If I were an ant, I wouldn’t go near that.

The Rasberry crazy ant, sometimes called the tawny crazy ant, originated in South America, but over the last decade, it’s been infiltrating the U. S. Gulf Coast.

These ants are just a few millimeters long, with long legs and antennas. They’re not known for being aggressive, and they don’t seem to sting, but they do move around in a really irregular way when they’re disturbed, which is where their name comes from. It’s not totally clear why they run like this, but it might be a form of protection.

After all, ants scurrying around in a zig-zagging or looping pattern are harder to smush. Besides their movement, these ants are also strange because they appear to be drawn to the cooling vents of electrical equipment. So much so that they’ve been known to short out appliances, computers, and even entire chemical plants.

Some people believe these insects are attracted to electricity, but so far, there’s no real science to support that. Instead, this behavior probably has to do with chemistry. These ants have been shown to be highly attracted to each other’s pheromones, or the chemicals their bodies release.

So it seems more likely that, when one of them gets shocked by electrical equipment, probably while looking for a place to nest, they release pheromones that tell the other ants they’re in danger. Then, thousands of them swarm in the area to come to the rescue. It’s a much less sci-fi scenario, although probably no less terrifying for the people who discover a massive ant infestation crawling around their electronics.

They’re not an immediate threat to humans, but rasberry crazy ants can actually cause major issues for other animals, mainly bees. The ants have been observed destroying hives and eating bee larvae, which isn’t great when you think about all the other problems bees are dealing with these days. But at least they’re not stealing body parts.

The exploding ant is named after its ability to explode. At least, in a sense. There are actually a bunch of species that demonstrate this behavior, but a significant one is called, appropriately, C. explodens.

It was identified in a 2018 paper and can be found throughout Southeast Asia. It may look harmless, with no stinger and a normal-sized jaw, but don’t be fooled. When some of these exploding ants feel threatened, you don’t want to be around.

First, the ant raises its backside as a warning to a predator. Then, if the predator is undeterred, the ant, or a few of them, turns its backside at the predator. They begin to flex as hard as they can until their abdomens tear open, releasing a bright yellow, sticky toxin that kills the intruder.

It sounds kind of horrifying, but it does protect their colonies. Also, the ants who explode are sterile females, so this behavior makes a bit more evolutionary sense. If these ants can’t pass along their genes, at least they’re defending their homes.

This research is still pretty recent, and there are plenty of mysteries surrounding this species, like what that yellow toxin is made out of, and how the ants optimize their attacks to inflict the most damage. But one thing’s for sure: if an exploding ant shows you its butt, get outta there. There are over a dozen species in the genus Polyergus, also called Amazon ants or slave-raiding ants.

But they all have similar behavior: They’re parasites that capture other ant species and put them to work. These ants are spread throughout the world, but many are found in the U. S. and are known to prey on colonies in the Formica genus.

First, an Amazon ant queen will infiltrate a Formica nest and kill the native queen. But before she can complete her takeover, she has to be accepted by the colony’s workers. Because, apparently, ants have rules about this kind of thing.

It’s not entirely clear how this acceptance happens, but it might have something to do with the Amazon ant picking up the old queen’s scent. Either way, once the Formica ants have approved their new ruler, the Amazon ants will put them to work. They make the other ants do everything for them, from cleaning to raising their young.

Then, once those babies are grown up, the Amazon ants move on to the next Formica colony to start the cycle over again. It’s not clear if the Formica ants get anything out of this relationship, but the Amazon ants definitely do. They even appear to have lost the ability to take care of their own young altogether, possibly after thousands of years of making other species do it for them.

Bullet ants are known for being the ultimate pain inducers, and their sting is ranked among the most excruciating of all insect stings. At least, based on something called the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. It was first published in the 1980s by Justin Schmidt, who actually stung himself with every species he could find.

Which I’m sure sounded like a great idea at the time. Bullet ants are ranked the highest: a 4-plus. They’re native to the rainforests of Central and South America, and their bodies are almost creepily long, sometimes approaching three centimeters in length.

Thankfully, they aren’t known for being aggressive unless you get close to their nests. But once you’ve infringed on their territory, prepare yourself for a world of pain. What makes their sting so incredibly painful is a peptide called poneratoxin.

It was first described in the early 1990s, and it causes painfully long-lasting contractions in smooth muscles. Bullet ant encounters are rarely deadly for humans, but enough stings can cause paralysis and trembling, and the pain can persist for up to 24 hours. Although these ants are mainly known for the pain they cause, indigenous peoples have found good uses for them, too, like for closing wounds.

They’ll hold a bullet ant close to the wound and then, when the ant bites down, twist off its body so that only its pincers remain. It’s not a good time for the ant, but the venom causes the person’s skin to swell and begins the healing process, making it easier to keep the wound closed. Resourceful, considering my reaction to bullet ants would be to run as fast possible in the opposite direction.

There are around 40 species of leafcutter ant spread throughout Central and South America, as well as the U. S. And while they won’t poison you or tear themselves apart, they are pretty crafty.

You might think of ants as stealing crumbs off your floor, or collecting nectar from plants. But leafcutter ants are farmers. They’re known to slice up pieces of plant material and carry it back to their nests.

Then, they’ll partially digest it and leave it out to grow their real food: fungus. The fungus can break down compounds in plants that the ants can’t otherwise digest, and it’s the insects’ main source of nutrients. This fungus is so important that if a queen starts a new colony, she’ll even take a starter culture to the new home.

Leafcutter ants have also been likened to the pharmacists of the insect world, since they use the antibiotics produced by bacteria to keep unwanted parasitic fungi from growing. Scientists aren’t sure how that relationship started, but they know that the bacteria hitches a ride on the outside of the ant, then secretes antibiotics that protect the health of their precious fungus. All of which seems pretty complex for a little insect.

Finally, speaking of ways ants get their food, we have honeypot ants. They belong to several genuses and are found around the world in dry climates like deserts. For the most part, these ants seem pretty normal, until a drought hits.

Among honeypot ants, there’s a special class of workers called repletes. They feed on things like flower nectar and dead insects, and their abdomens can swell to enormous sizes, sometimes eight times the weight of the rest of their bodies. This gives them the appearance of a honeypot, and you might be able to guess where this is going.

During a drought, these ants actually use this abdominal liquid to keep their fellow colony members alive. To get this sweet substance, another worker ant will stroke a replete’s antenna, giving them the signal that it’s time to eat. Then, the replete will regurgitate the liquid.

Which is amazing, and also kind of horrifying? What makes this even weirder is that honeypot ants are so bloated with liquid that all they can do is hang from the roofs of nests, waiting to provide nutrients for their buddies. Like little hanging honey pots, I guess.

Unfortunately for the honeypot ants, other colonies and species of ants have also caught on to this, meaning repletes are easy prey. And in Australia, some indigenous peoples use them in their diets. But for other ants, they’re basically living vending machines.

Which is so creepy. To most people, ants are nothing special. But like a lot of things in the universe, you just have to look a little more closely.

The ant world is an incredible, dangerous, and downright bizarre place. And it’s all happening right under your feet. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, especially to our patrons on Patreon!

If you want to support science education online and help keep us exploring this weird, amazing world we live in, you can go to [♪ OUTRO].