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Zombie Ant


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Just like us, Ants give off a chemical when they die. That chemical is called Oleic Acid. Oleic Acid makes it to where other ants passing by officially know they’re dead. The chemical is only released two days after death.

When Ed Wilson was a young assistant professor at Harvard in the 1950s, he observed that when ants die — and if they’re not crushed and torn apart — they just lie there, sometimes upside down, feet in the air, while their sister ants (almost all ants in a colony are ladies) walk right by without a glance. That is until about two days after an ant’s passing, Ed discovered, when the corpse appears to emit a chemical signal that changes the living ants’ behavior dramatically.

Finally, after much sifting and mixing, Ed discovered that oleic acid — just a teeny drop of it — was all the ants had to sniff to think “DEAD!” and, because he could, Ed had a colony parked in his Harvard lab so he could watch them endlessly. One day, he took a drop of the chemical and gently deposited it on an ant that had the misfortune of walking by.

In an ant colony, when an ant dies, they have something called a “graveyard,” and that’s where all the dead ants are picked up and carried off to. There at the graveyard, corpses just lay there.

Someone decided to test this theory out: If Oleic Acid was placed on a working ant, would it think it was dead? Would other ants think the same thing? There was only one way to find out.

He put a drop of Oleic Acid on one single ant and almost immediately, wandering ants started getting suspicious. They grabbed the ant covered in the chemical, and strangely, the ant willingly went to the graveyard where other dead ants go.

 

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