A million trapped cannibal ants have successfully escaped a Soviet nuclear weapons bunker. Ants are known to live in extreme environments, but the weapons bunker was something completely different. The ants were originally discovered in 2013 when researchers were looking into bats that lived in another nuclear bunker around the same area. It was reported that all of the ants in the colony were worker ants, which means that they could not reproduce, so researchers were puzzled when they visited the site again in 2016 and found that the number of ants had grown to possibly 1 million.
As it turns out, the original nest was located over a ventilation pipe. When ants would fall down the pipe, they became trapped in the nuclear bunker with no light, no food, and no heat. So how did the population grow over the years in this void? As it turns out, they turned to cannibalism to survive. The weaker ants that fell down the pipe and did not survive were turned into food and researchers wanted to find out if these cannibal ants would leave their nuclear tomb, if given the chance.
The research team was led by Wojciech Czechowski, who is from the Museum and Institute of Zoology and the Polish Academy of Sciences. "The masses of Formica polyctena workers trapped in the bunker had no choice," the team wrote. "They were merely surviving and continuing their social tasks on the conditions set by the extreme environment." The team made a makeshift boardwalk that led to another ventilation pipe within the bunker to see if the ants would leave their extreme environment if given the choice.
After the boardwalk was placed, the ants appear to have made their way back to the original nest. When ants fall down the original ventilation pipe, they now have a place to escape, which all of them did. There are now at least one million cannibal ants out in the world, thanks to this research team. You can read more of their findings below.
"The survival and growth of the bunker 'colony' through the years, without producing own offspring, was possible owing to continuous supply of new workers from the upper nest and accumulation of nestmate corpses. The corpses served as an inexhaustible source of food which substantially allowed survival of the ants trapped down in otherwise extremely unfavorable conditions."
Researchers have discovered that ants will do just about anything to survive in an extreme environment, "even under conditions going far beyond the limits of the survival of the species." In turn, scientists now know that "the present case adds a dimension to the great adaptive ability of ants to marginal habitats and suboptimal conditions, as the key to understanding their unquestionable eco-evolutionary success." Now we just need to figure out what's going on with those nuclear bunker bats that they were originally looking into in 2013... You can read more about the study over at The Journal of Hymenoptera Research website.