Tuesday, May 27, 2008

PBS: "Master of the Killer Ants", going against a termite colony


Tonight PBS aired the NOVA film “Master of the Killer Ants.” The documentary is set in Cameroon, east of Nigeria, where, as usually the case in rural Africa, the people (here, the Mofu) live off of the biological cycles of the land. The movie documents the native termite population first. Termites are eusocial insects in the sense that ants and bees often are. But termites have soldier and worker individuals, and the soldier “people” are about twice the size of the ordinary workers. But, in a practical sense, only the “king(s)” and “queen” have gender. The various entities in a colony might be viewed as analogous to chess pieces. The queen is hundreds of times as large as a worker, and looks like an amorphous mass, laying thousands of eggs a day. The organization of a social insect colony helps model some of the social attitudes people have had in the past about the components of their own civilizations.

There is an interesting classroom scene where a male teacher drills grade school boys on the difference between a vertebrate and invertebrate animal, in English and French. The classroom is Spartan and seems the school seems to have been built partly with mud.

The termites destroy the homes and food storage of the Mofu. However the people use a “free” resources from nature (note: current sunlight). A shaman calls for the Jaglavak, an ant colony, where workers, protected by thick exoskeletons, will attack soldiers many time their own size by using teamwork and attacking the limbs of the termite, and then climbing onto it and pulling it apart as if they were piranha. The ants are summoned into the village, and they go after the termite colony. The film shows detailed underground sequences in video of the “hand-to-hand” combat. A number of soldiers manage to scuttle the queen to safety while closing off the tunnel, a remarkable feat of communication and cooperation.

Is "ants v. termites" like "lions v. hyenas"?

Social insects have been the topics of some animated films, like "A Bug's Life", "Antz" and "The Any Bully", all of which explored the tension between individualism and the common good in analogy to human society. The comparison may be a bit of a stretch.

See also review of "Lord of the Ants" on May 20 on this blog.

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