Bizarre ant colony discovered in an abandoned Polish nuclear weapons bunker
Scientists describe workers trapped for years in "a hostile environment in total darkness."
For the past several years, a group of researchers has been observing a seemingly impossible wood ant colony living in an abandoned nuclear weapons bunker in Templewo, Poland, near the German border. Completely isolated from the outside world, these members of the species Formica polyctena have created an ant society unlike anything we’ve seen before.
The Soviets built the bunker during the Cold War to store nuclear weapons, sinking it below ground and planting trees on top as camouflage. Eventually a massive colony of wood ants took up residence in the soil over the bunker. There was just one problem: the ants built their nest directly over a vertical ventilation pipe. When the metal covering on the pipe finally rusted away, it left a dangerous, open hole. Every year when the nest expands, thousands of worker ants fall down the pipe and cannot climb back out. The survivors have nevertheless carried on for years underground, building a nest from soil and maintaining it in typical wood ant fashion. Except, of course, that this situation is far from normal.
Polish Academy of Sciences zoologist Wojciech Czechowski and his colleagues discovered the nest after a group of other zoologists found that bats were living in the bunker. Though it was technically not legal to go inside, the bat researchers figured out a way to squeeze into the small, confined space and observe the animals inside. Czechowski’s team followed suit when they heard that the place was swarming with ants. What they found, over two seasons of observation, was a group of almost a million worker ants whose lives are so strange that they hesitate to call them a “colony” in the observations they just published in The Journal of Hymenoptera.
Because conditions in the bunker are so harsh, constantly cold, and
mostly barren, the ants seem to live in a state of near-starvation. They
produce no queens, no males, and no offspring. The massive group
tending the nest is entirely composed of non-reproductive female
workers, supplemented every year by a new rain of unfortunate ants
falling down the ventilation shaft.
Journal of Hymenoptera Research, 2016. DOI: 10.3897/jhr.51.9096