I’ve recently been informed about a new strategy/simulation game called Formicarium that is in development. The aim of the game seems to involve taking control of an ant colony, building a nest, collecting sufficient resources, and protecting it from enemies (you can see their Kickstarter page here or their official website here for more information). It’s certainly an intriguing premise, but what has impressed me the most is that everything in the game seems to be scientifically accurate. Your colony can apparently be attacked by parasitic wasps that try to lay their eggs within the ants, or by spiders simply pretending to be ants; you can cultivate an underground fungi farm; or you can have different types of ant, such as ‘acid sprayers, honey pots […] and suicide bombers’. All of these things certainly exist in nature, and below is just a small selection of the real-life versions of some of the game’s features.
Mimicking ants is not uncommon. Many other invertebrates do it to escape predators, for ants are generally distasteful to eat and often avoided by hungry birds. But ant-mimicking spiders, such as those found in the Myrmarachne genus, pretend to be ants for other reasons. Their disguise allows them to sneak into an ant colony undetected so they can snack on the ants themselves.
The disguise of these spiders, as you can see from the picture above, is quite remarkable. They have developed constrictions on their abdomens that resemble the body segments of the legitimate ants, while two black patches on their heads resemble the ants’ compound eyes. Since spiders have eight legs – two more than insects – the front pair, which is longer than the others, is held out in front of them to resemble antennae. In some species the adult spider will mimic one kind of ant, but the young spiderlings, which are too small to convincingly mimic the bigger ants that their parents copy, use a different and much smaller type of ant as a model.
Many ant-mimicking spiders show great sexual dimorphism. The female (seen in the first picture) resembles a single ant, but the male (above) looks like an ant carrying an even smaller ant. This ‘small ant’ is actually a long pair of claws, which make up a third of the male’s entire body length. Males use these claws as weapons when fighting each other over females.
Soldier ants sacrifice themselves to save their colony or their queen all the time, but few do it as dramatically as the carpenter ants of Southeast Asia. The soldiers of one species, Camponotus saundersi, have a special set of oversized muscles that run the length of their body and connect with poison-filled glands in their abdomen. When faced with no other alternative, these ants sacrifice themselves by violently flexing these muscles, fatally rupturing their bodies and splashing toxins in the face of the enemy. In essence, these ants can explode at will for the greater good. After all, if you must die, then why die peacefully and leave a corpse lying around when you can do it in style and take some of the enemy down with you?
In the Australian outback, finding food and water can be notoriously difficult – even for an ant. Honeypot ants feed mainly on nectar obtained from plants, but desert plants bloom only very sporadically, usually when there has just been a rare downpour. This means that when nectar does become available, the honeypot ants need a way of storing it for leaner times.
The ants do this by using their own bodies as living larders. The honeypot ants collect the nectar and then force-feed it to workers of a special caste – called repletes – to the point that their abdomens swell enormously, from no bigger than a grain of sand to the size of a large pea. The repletes, no longer able to crawl around, now cling to the roof of their galleries in their hundreds. The repletes store the undigested nectar within their swollen abdomens, using only very little of it for themselves. When food dries up in the surrounding desert, the other workers need only to stroke the antennae of the repletes to encourage them to regurgitate the nectar, allowing the other ants to eat it. After their supply of nectar has been exhausted, the repletes die.
If all of these things – and more – are implemented well, Formicarium could easily become a very enjoyable game – and it might even make people more interested in ants too! It will be intriguing to see what the developers add into the game further on down the line. I, for one, hope to see some ant-decapitating flies make an appearance! Or maybe some aphids for the ants to farm…
And as a side note, the person who told me about this game is my good friend Luke Ashcroft, who is involved in developing a game of his own, Yes, Your Grace, whose Kickstarter page can be found here.