Friday, October 21, 2016

The 'queen has died' notice explains vanished ant colony

In the words of one observer, it is “possibly the saddest, most heartbreaking ‘This exhibit is currently out of order’ sign ever” – the ant colony at London’s Natural History Museum has a sign on it that reads: “The queen ant has died.” The sign goes on to explain that: “When this happens the colony fails to survive.

The worker ants are in the process of dismantling the fungus garden nests, then they will also die.” All that is now left of the Trinidad Leaf-Cutter ant colony is a pile of discarded leaves, some shredded paper, and the remains of several dead ants that have yet to be cleaned out. The whole scene is being played out in front of the museum’s thousands of daily visitors in the Creepy Crawlies gallery, where an ant colony has been one of the main attractions for some time.

The museum even used to have a webcam trained on the ants so you could keep an eye on them remotely. Leaf-cutter ants feed by deliberately growing fungus in their nest on the leaves that they drag there, and ants are one of only four groups of animal on Earth believed to have discovered agriculture. Myrmecologists think that ants first began farming fungus about 50m years ago, and in order to be able to stock their colony, they can carry 5,000 times their own body weight.

But there is no fungus being farmed in the Natural History Museum any more, as a succession of visitors pressed their faces to the empty display, looking for any signs of life behind the glass. Insiders at the museum say the queen died some time ago, and that this happens every few years. The good news is that he museum’s sign ends optimistically, by saying the exhibit is waiting for a new queen to arrive.

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