A show of force in the colonies: Sanjida O'Connell looks at how military theory explains the ant's warring nature

ONE OF our least admirable traits as a species is our readiness to go to war. This preoccupation has engendered considerable research, some of which is now turning up in unusual places. In 1916, the engineer Frederick William Lanchester published his work on warring armies. Today, Dr Nigel Franks and Lucas Partridge, of Bath University, are using Lanchester's theories on attrition in battle to analyse how ants fight.

Not all ants are the thrifty creatures of our imaginations: army ants and slave-making ants wage war and capture prisoners. Two of Lanchester's most famous models of combat that apply to these ants are the Square Law and the Linear Law.

The former assumes that each individual is vulnerable to attack from every individual on the opposing side. During battle, the side that has the smallest army finds itself being attacked more fiercely since each soldier is attacked by more than one member of the opposition. The disparity between the two sides should increase through time, and the larger the army, relative to its enemy, the fewer casualties it will sustain.

This strategy is exactly the kind used by army ants. They regularly engage in deadly battles against other social insects, which they then eat. Army ants raid with enormous numbers of relatively small workers, none of which is a particularly good soldier. In some species, up to 200,000 ants can participate in a single raid. In comparison, the prey species numbers only a few thousand.

Army ants concentrate thousands of workers at the attack front, and, by sheer force of numbers, can overwhelm each colony they come to. One type of ant, Eciton burchelli, has several different sizes of ant in its army, but the smallest make up almost all of the foot soldiers in the front line.

The Square Law offers the best explanation for this, since if numbers are more important than individual fighting value, it is better to produce vast numbers of small soldiers. But Lanchester's Linear Law shows how an outnumbered force can turn the tables on its enemy. Instead of entering a free-for- all, the smaller army engages its opponents in a series of duels. If the soldiers in the smaller army are slightly stronger, each one can fight and win a whole series of duels.

Slave-making ants, as their name suggests, fight and capture ants from other species, and have become almost totally dependent on their prisoners for their livelihood. The problem is that the masters are doomed to be outnumbered by potential slaves, so the warring ants release 'propaganda' substances that act like the alarm signals used by the slaves themselves. In the ensuing melee, the confused slaves are unable to marshal their defences and can thus be picked off by the masters in a series of one-to-one duels.

But what if the soldiers on each side are similar? The American honey pot ant, for example, enslaves its own species. Different colonies of honey pot ants, acting with sinister similarity to humans, are like rival nations that size each other up before going to war.

Dr Franks says that opposing colonies go to a specialised tournament ground. 'They stand on extended legs, as if they are on stilts, and strut past each other. It seems very much as if they are weighing up numbers on the other side.'

Since the larger colonies have slightly larger workers, 'if you parade past 10 workers and they are all smaller than you, you know they are a smaller colony'. These rituals seem to be sufficient for the colonies to decide whether to go to war and, naturally, it is the side with the largest ants that launches the attack.

Lanchester's work has been used to study war. His theories have been applied, for example, to the battle of Iwo Jima, an island taken from the Japanese by the Americans in Febuary 1945. However, they have mainly been applied retrospectively. As Dr Franks explains: 'It is difficult to try to apply them to human warfare because military propaganda naturally lies.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
footballLouis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
The spider makes its break for freedom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Administrator

£14400 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a multi-d...

Recruitment Genius: Service, Maintenance & Installation Engineers - London

£34000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of Energy Consult...

Austen Lloyd: Planning Solicitor - Bristol

£50000 - £70000 per annum + Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - FIRST CL...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner - Night Shift

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A leading Leicestershire based chilled food ma...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot