The Third Leader: A bug's life

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The Independent Online

Something of a pause in this department yesterday when we were advised of new research showing that aunts have a sense of their own mortality. An image of these much-loved creatures caught in an autumn and pensive mode was dispelled by the correcting intelligence that the species involved was, in fact, the ant.

We are, we have to say, rather less fond of the ant than the aunt. Always scurrying about, always busy, always being used as a good example to the rest of us. Where's the fun, or the sofa? Those are the female ants, of course. Accuse me of egocentrism if you like, but I warmed even less to ants when I discovered that the males die after a few weeks, even if, up to that, all they do is eat and have sex. So, stereotyping as well. Thanks.

Now, though, it seems it could be worse. The research demonstrating this sense of their own mortality also shows a worrying amount of altruism. Apparently the ageing females, rather than kicking over the heap and heading for the insect equivalent of the Costa del Sol, take on the colony's riskier tasks, like foraging, so that the younger members can survive.

I know where this might go. Pragmatic young leaders of a persuasive stripe would, before you can say Zimmer, have the silvery among us patrolling some desert where they've decided there's a threat. You can see the antish sense in it, too: expendable, and huge savings in long-term care. Those as gets mine clearance will be the lucky ones. We say: Sir Ming, we're behind you!

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