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Make Peace? This Ant Can't

April 21, 2002

After the National Academy of Sciences published a study last week concluding that Argentine ants are thriving in Europe and California because of cooperation, we thought of an editorial holding up the two-millimeter marvels as role models for all the tall ruffians swaggering around these days in the Middle East and other epicenters of human folly.

Then we met the ants.

While genially swapping workers and sharing information about food sources with close kin, Argentine ants, it turns out, don't cotton to strangers. Thrusting up on their rear legs, they spray non-kin with toxic venom, then tear their heads and legs to shreds.

Their phenomenal ferocity and strength (scaled to human size an Argentine ant would be able to lift more than a quarter of a ton) have enabled them to eliminate 90% of rival ant species in the Mediterranean region. A smaller Argentine ant network--a series of nests and tunnels stretching merely from Oregon to Mexico--has caused ecological havoc in North America too, decimating the ant species that some lizards, butterflies and other creatures depend upon for survival.

There's no question that ants have much to teach humans. They have come to outweigh all the big game in Africa and all the whales in the world's oceans because they have achieved a level of social cooperation far more sophisticated than anything dreamed up by Confucius, Karl Marx or Adam Smith.

But as much as we would have liked to cling to our original editorial premise, we have to admit that peacemaking does not appear to be the ants' forte.

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