Most people assume that living things cannot survive “in a hostile environment in total darkness.” But every day we get our world turned around. For example, it might not be long now until we discover bacteria or other single-cell life on the surface of Mars. We just don’t know.
But this strange story comes from a place a little closer to home. In the Polish country side of Eastern Europe, one abandoned nuclear war bunker was left untouched for decades. At least scientists thought it was untouched. But when they adventured inside, they were shocked to find a bizarre ant colony thriving in the seemingly impossible environment.
Learn more about what this discovery means below!
Near the German border, in the nuclear war bunker in Templewo, Poland, researchers identified a strange wood ant colony thriving in the unhospitable environment.
Because they were isolated from the outside world for decades, the ants, which are a member of the Formica polyctena species, created an ant colony unlike anything ever seen before.
First some history. Soviets build the bunker during the Cold War to store the nuclear warheads they kept pointed at America.
A colony of wood ants built a nest around the vertical ventilation pipe that leads down into the bunker. Every year, worker ants fall in and cannot escape. But they don’t die down there. Instead, they continued to create a thriving nest and maintained it in typical wood ant fashion.
The nest was discovered by Polish Academy of Sciences zoologist Wojciech Czechowski and his colleagues.
They discovered a group of more than a million worker ants whose life is so abnormal, they hesitated to call it an “ant colony”.
The ants, who suffer through low temperatures and starvation, do not produce queens and have no males. Instead, the colony is populated with non-reproductive female workers, and is repopulated every year when more fall down the ventilation shaft.
Part of a worker ant’s job is to clean up waste. For the bunker ants, the most common form of waste is their own dead bodies.
“Flat parts of the earthen mound [of the nest] and the floor of the adjacent spaces … were carpeted with bodies of dead ants,” write Czechowski and colleagues.
The bunker ants created an “ant cemetery”, which was centimeters thick at places and “one cubic decimeter sample contained [roughly] 8,000 corpses.”
The paper published on the shocking ant colony phenomenon concludes with a description that sounds like something a science fiction writer would dream up back in the 1970s.
“The wood-ant ‘colony’ described here – although superficially looking like a functioning colony with workers teeming on the surface of the mound – is rather an example of survival of a large amount of workers trapped within a hostile environment in total darkness, with constantly low temperatures and no ample supply of food. The continued survival of the ‘colony’ through the years is dependent on new workers falling in through the ventilation pipe. The supplement of workers more than compensates for the mortality rate of workers such that through the years the bunker workforce has grown to the level of big, mature natural colonies.”
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