One million ants trapped inside nuclear bunker survived through cannibalism

Researchers from the Polish Society for Nature Protection “Salamandra”, found around one million ants in the bunker Templewo and around two million corpses. Wojciech Stephan

An estimated 1 million 'cannibal ants' trapped inside a former Soviet nuclear military  base survived by eating each other, new research has found.

The ants, which were first discovered at the disused bunker in Templewo in 2013, lived in a small area with no light and no food source.

Their repeated attempts to escape through a ventilation shaft failed as they kept falling down.

Judging by the huge deposits of dead ants, co-author of the report Wojciech Czechowski and his colleagues were convinced that the colony had survived there for years, but nobody knew how.Wojciech Stephan

The site, which operated as a Soviet base during the Cold War from 1960 until 1990, included two underground two-level bunkers.

The ‘colony’ was found by researchers from the Polish Society for Nature Protection “Salamandra”, who estimated there were around one million ants in the bunker and around two million corpses.

Judging by the huge deposits of dead ants, co-author of the report Wojciech Czechowski and his colleagues were convinced that the colony had survived there for years, but nobody knew how.

The ants’ repeated attempts to escape through a ventilation shaft failed as they kept falling down.Wojciech Stephan

Now their research has taken a startling turn, as their latest findings show that the ants survived by eating other ants.

Describing their discovery in an article published on 31 October in the Journal of Hymnoptera Research entitled “Ants trapped for years in an old bunker; survived by cannibalism and eventual escape”, the scientists wrote: “The corpses served as an inexhaustible source of food which substantially allowed survival of the ants trapped down in otherwise extremely unfavourable conditions.”

To help the ants escape, the scientists installed a plank of wood to help them get back through the ventilation pipe and find their way to their original nest.Wojciech Stephan

They also noted that ants have been known to eat other ants.

These “ant wars” aim to settle rival colonies’ borders, but can also provide extra food after the harsh winter months.

For Czechowski and his colleagues, solving the puzzle of the insects’ survival provided a broader lesson into how ants can function in tough conditions.

The ants, which were first discovered at the disused bunker in Templewo in 2013, lived in a small area with no light and no food source.Wojciech Stephan

“The most interesting lesson taught by the F. polyctena ‘colony’ studied here is, how monumental potential wood ants have to maintain self-organisation even under conditions going far beyond the limits of the survival of the species,” the authors concluded.

To help the ants escape, the scientists installed a boardwalk to help them get back through the ventilation pipe and find their way to their original nest.