Ants are known for their amazing survival strategies, from building complex colonies to working together to gather food. However, researchers have discovered a new survival strategy used by ants on Kangaroo Island in Australia: playing dead. In a recent study, published in the journal Ecology, researchers found that ants on Kangaroo Island would freeze and stop moving when they sensed a predator nearby, effectively playing dead to avoid being attacked. This strategy, known as thanatosis or “playing dead,” has been observed in other insects, but this is the first time it has been documented in ants. The researchers studied two species of ants on Kangaroo Island: the meat ant (Iridomyrmex purpureus) and the bull ant (Myrmecia pyriformis). They found that when the ants were exposed to potential predators, such as spiders or lizards, they would freeze and remain motionless for up to 15 minutes. This behavior appeared to be a successful defense mechanism, as the predators did not attack the ants while they were in this state. The researchers also discovered that the ants used chemical signals to communicate with one another during this process. When a predator was detected, the ants would release a chemical signal that alerted other ants to play dead as well. This allowed the entire colony to effectively avoid being attacked by predators. This discovery sheds light on the complex and sophisticated survival strategies of ants, and raises questions about how other species may have evolved similar behaviors to avoid being preyed upon.

Portrait of an ant, profile view

While the behavior of “playing dead” may be new to ants, it is not uncommon in other species. Many animals have evolved this strategy as a way to avoid predators. Here are a few examples: Opossums are well-known for their ability to play dead. When they sense danger, they will fall to the ground and remain motionless, with their tongue hanging out and their eyes closed. This behavior can last for several minutes, fooling predators into thinking they are dead and leaving them alone.  Some species of snakes, such as the hognose snake, will play dead when threatened. They will roll onto their back, open their mouth, and emit a foul-smelling odor. This behavior can deter predators from attacking them. Some species of fish, such as the threespine stickleback, will “play dead” by floating upside down when they sense danger. This can make them appear unappetizing to predators, and increase their chances of survival. Species may evolve to play dead as a survival strategy to avoid being preyed upon by predators. By appearing lifeless, an animal may fool a predator into thinking that it is not worth attacking, or that it has already been killed. This can provide the animal with an opportunity to escape, or to wait until the predator moves on before resuming its normal activities. Playing dead can be particularly effective when an animal is confronted by a predator that relies on movement or other cues to detect prey. By remaining still and appearing lifeless, the animal may be able to avoid being detected altogether. In addition, playing dead can be a low-cost defense mechanism that does not require the animal to expend a lot of energy or risk injury in a fight with a predator. The evolution of the “playing dead” strategy is likely a response to the pressure of predation and has allowed many species to survive in environments where they might otherwise be vulnerable to attack.

The discovery of ants “playing dead” on Kangaroo Island is a fascinating insight into the survival strategies of these insects. It highlights the complexity and sophistication of ant behavior and raises questions about how other species may have evolved similar strategies to avoid predators. As we continue to study the behavior of animals, we may uncover even more surprising and innovative survival strategies.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email