Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Ultimate Sacrifice

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Imagine what it would be like to live a totally selfless life... You'd never ignore a homeless person on the street. You'd never refuse to help a friend move so you could secretly watch Big Bang. And you'd definitely never go out in public knowing full well that you were showing all the symptoms of swine flu.

But would you walk out into a deserted field to die at the first sign of a sniffle?

A species of ant called Temnothorax unifasciatus may be the most altruistic species on the planet, putting all of your meager attempts at charity to shame. Because when any member of this ant species becomes infected with a deadly fungus, they immediately abandon their nest and walk away, facing death alone in order to protect their relatives.

It's the first time such a behavior has been recorded in a social insect like ants, though it's been seen before in species like elephants and cats. Humans certainly don't have it's equivalent. We seem to be more of the "if I'm going down, I'm taking you all down with me," mind set. And it took researchers quite a while to prove that it was in fact a conscious choice on the part of the ants, and not the result of a "zombie fungus" that was forcing them to do it.

Of course, there's a clear evolutionary advantage to altruism. Even though the individual performing it may not personally profit by increased offspring, the advantage will be conferred onto their close relatives, who share some of their genetic makeup. And in cases like this, it's very clear that if the diseased ants didn't take it upon themselves to leave, the entire nest would be in danger of infection.

But in an age where we humans can spend months arguing over who will or will not be paying for what medical procedure in the laughably named "health care" debate, it's nice to see real world proof that selflessness can work. At least for ants.

- Brit Trogen

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