It took a former Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery, to come up with a fitting description for the denizens of gossip mags, such as New Idea, Woman’s Day and their spawn. The fascinating thing is that to Flannery, these beacons of journalism resemble nothing more than a certain type of ant. Now, scandal sheets are certainly antsy, but Flannery’s thesis may seem a little far-fetched until one sees the detail.

And sobering it is.

In a scholarly critique in the New York Review of Books, generously reprinted by the AFR’s “Review” section, Flannery writes that some ant species do not have queen ants in the strict sense:

Instead, worker ants (which are all female) that have mated with a male ant become the dominant reproductive individuals. These are the gamergates, or “married workers”, and their s-x life can be brutal. In one species the gamergates venture outside of the nest to attract a male, engage him in copulation, then carry him into the nest before snipping off his genitals and throwing away the rest of his body. The severed genitals continue to inseminate the gamergate for up to an hour, after which they too are discarded.

Sounds touchingly akin to life in the gossip world. But there’s more.

While examining The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, a 522 page work by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, Flannery finds that the fertilised gamergates then vie for dominance, causing disruptive conflict in the nest. Sometimes an oligarchy of gamergates is established, but in other instances a single gamergate triumphs.

“You might think that such an established gamergate would watch the colony carefully for signs of emerging rivals, but this is not the case”, he cautions. “Instead, it’s the worker ants that do so by taking a keen interest in the s-xual status of their sisters. If they sense that one is becoming a s-xually active gamergate, they will turn on her, either assaulting her or watching carefully until she produces eggs, which they promptly consume.

What intrigues Flannery is that that the sterile workers play the role of monitoring and regulating the s-xual life of the colony. “In a stretch of the imagination, I can see parallels between this behavior and the role of policing and censuring the s-x lives of the rich and famous that gossip magazines play in our own society.”

So there you have it. Next time you see the ants heading for a sugar bowl or trekking across a bush path, you can reflect on their ability to avoid the paparazzi, while opting for sterile, gossip columnist-style guardians.

All those “Confidential”, “insiders say,” “pals relate” and other devices are clearly a produce of such sterility. Of mind as well, perhaps.

Intriguingly, Flannery finds aspect of ant life that would possibly appeal to radical feminists. “Except for short periods just before the mating season, when an ant colony is reproducing, it is composed entirely of females, and among some primitive species virgin births are common.”

But all offspring of these virgin mothers are winged males that almost invariably leave the nest. If a female ant mates, however, all of her fertilized eggs become females. In many ant societies, reproduction is the prerogative of a single individual — the queen. She mates soon after leaving her natal colony, and stores the sperm from that mating (or from multiple matings) all of her life, using it to fertilize (in some cases) millions of eggs over 10 or more years.”

Whimsically, Flannery looks at the role of ant undertakers. They recognise ant corpses through the presence of a product of decomposition called oleic acid. “When researchers daub live ants with the acid, they are promptly carried off to the ant cemetery by the undertakers, despite the fact that they are alive and kicking. Indeed, unless they clean themselves very thoroughly they are repeatedly dragged to the mortuary, despite showing every other sign of life.”

And as for that question pondered through the ages, how do ants find their way around, the answer’s here.? Ant explorers count their steps to work out where they are in relation to home. How do we know this? Unkind, but clearly determined lengthened the legs of ants by attaching stilts to them. “The stilt-walking ants, they observed, became lost on their way home to the nest at a distance proportionate to the length of their stilts.”

In a way, ants also “speak” to each other through potent chemical signals called pheromones. About 40 different pheromone-producing glands have been found in ants and, although no single species has all 40 glands, enough diversity of signalling is present to allow for the most sophisticated interactions. “The fire ant, for example, uses just a few glands to produce its 18 pheromone signals, yet this number, along with two visual signals, is sufficient to allow its large and sophisticated colonies to function.

“Pheromone trails are laid by ants as they travel, and along well-used routes these trails take on the characteristics of a superhighway. From an ant’s perspective, they are three-dimensional tunnels perhaps a centimetre wide that lead to food, a garbage dump, or home.”

Wipe your finger across the track of ants raiding a sugar bowl, says Flannery, and you can see the importance of the pheromone trail. When the ants reach the spot where your finger erased their track they will become confused and turn back or wander.

And to show the potency of the chemicals used to mark such tracks, one milligram of the track pheromone used by some species to guide workers to leaf-cutting sites is enough to lay an ant superhighway 60 times around the earth.

All that, and guardians of morality as well.

Peter Fray

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