The ant carousel: Why do insects go in circles?

Why do insects go in circles until they are completely exhausted?

Our world is amazing, and scientists are constantly discovering new phenomena of the animal world. One such phenomenon is the ant circle or ants’ carousel. Once in it, the insects march for days until they are completely exhausted and dead. Why do ant circles appear and can they be stopped?

The Endless Loop

The movement of ants in circles is rarely seen in nature. More often than not, this abnormal behavior is exhibited by nomadic ants that live in Central and South America.

It begins with a small group of insects changing their direction of movement, shifting from a straight path into a circle. The ants are in a hurry, keeping up with each other, moving like fascinated, with new companions joining them.

The circle grows but does not stop. Only the death from the exhaustion of some or even all participants of this race can put an end to the spiral movement.

Back in 1910, the American scientist William Morton shared a description of an ant-spiral he had observed. Although more than 100 years have passed since then, scientists still do not have an exact explanation for the natural phenomenon.

In 1921, traveler William Beeb recorded the world’s largest death spiral. Its size is amazing: the diameter of the circle was 360 meters! To make one more turn, the ants took 2.5 hours.

The movement lasted two days and stopped only because most of the ants died. The rest were able to separate, take out the surviving insects, and escape.

Why do the insects behave so strangely?

One possible reason why ants walk in circles is because of their sense of smell. Moving in search of food, insects leave scent trails – pheromone tags. They help to navigate and follow their tribesmen.

According to scientists, ants can lose their way and walk past one mark several times, at the same time leaving new traces. By doing so, the insects only intensify the scent that guides them along the wrong path, but they keep moving anyway. And they do this until they drop dead of exhaustion.

For an ant to get out of the circle, it must either find a new “path” of scent or interrupt the old spiral. This can only be done from outside, so the insect has little chance of escape.

What other insects behave this way?

In 1944, zoopsychologist Theodore Schneirla gave a detailed description of the natural phenomenon. He called it a death carousel and noted that this behavior is inherent not only in ants but also in the larvae of the Silkworm Hiker butterfly

Silkworm Hiker

These butterflies are common in Eurasia and North Africa. Their caterpillars are very voracious. In search of food, they gather in large groups, line up in dense columns and move to new locations.

Ahead of them comes the leader caterpillar. She leaves a trail behind her, a silk thread. Orienting on it, move all the other caterpillars. If the leader goes astray, all the others also repeat the wrong route. If a circle is accidentally formed, then no one can break free of it. The caterpillars can move this way for several days.

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