Round and Round

Army ants are blind; they follow the pheromone tracks left by other ants. This leaves them vulnerable to forming an “ant mill,” in which a group of ants inadvertently form a continuously rotating circle, each ant following the ones ahead and leading the ones behind. Once this happens there’s no way to break the cycle; the ants will march until they die of exhaustion.

American naturalist William Beebe once came upon a mill 365 meters in circumference, a narrow lane looping senselessly through the jungle of British Guiana. “It was a strong column, six lines wide in many places, and the ants fully believed that they were on their way to a new home, for most were carrying eggs or larvae, although many had food, including the larvae of the Painted Nest Wasplets,” he wrote in his 1921 book Edge of the Jungle. “For an hour at noon during heavy rain, the column weakened and almost disappeared, but when the sun returned, the lines rejoined, and the revolution of the vicious circle continued.”

He calculated that each ant would require 2.5 hours to make one circuit. “All the afternoon the insane circle revolved; at midnight the hosts were still moving, the second morning many had weakened and dropped their burdens, and the general pace had very appreciably slackened. But still the blind grip of instinct held them. On, on, on they must go! Always before in their nomadic life there had been a goal — a sanctuary of hollow tree, snug heart of bamboos — surely this terrible grind must end somehow. In this crisis, even the Spirit of the Army was helpless. Along the normal paths of Eciton life he could inspire endless enthusiasm, illimitable energy, but here his material units were bound upon the wheel of their perfection of instinct. Through sun and cloud, day and night, hour after hour there was found no Eciton with individual initiative enough to turn aside an ant’s breadth from the circle which he had traversed perhaps fifteen times: the masters of the jungle had become their own mental prey.”