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See Inside December 2011

Battles among Ants Resemble Human Warfare

Battles among ants can be startlingly similar to human military operations



Illustration by John Dawson

The raging combatants form a blur on all sides. the scale of the violence is almost incomprehensible, the battle stretching beyond my field of view. Tens of thousands sweep ahead with a suicidal single-mindedness. Utterly devoted to duty, the fighters never retreat from a confrontation—even in the face of certain death. The engagements are brief and brutal. Suddenly, three foot soldiers grab an enemy and hold it in place until one of the bigger warriors advances and cleaves the captive’s body, leaving it smashed and oozing.

I back off with my camera, gasping in the humid air of the Malaysian rain forest, and remind myself that the rivals are ants, not humans. I have spent months documenting such deaths through a field camera that I use as a microscope, yet I still find it easy to forget that I am watching tiny insects—in this case, a species known as Pheidologeton diversus, the marauder ant.

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