There’s this feeling you get when a story gives you exactly the sort of satisfaction you’ve been hoping for but not quite expecting out of it. Kind of like sliding from cold tiles into a warm bath, or flipping the pillow over to the cool side when it’s ninety out and all the sheets are sticking to you.
Edward O. Wilson tells, in Letters to a Young Scientist, of an experiment performed to figure out how ants tell when another ant has shuffed off its mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. He starts with the hypothesis that the ants are reacting to the smell of decay coming from their dead sisters, because ants can hardly see when they’re down in the dark of their mounds, and for all they know that unmoving ant they’re crawling over is just being very lazy. It also takes a day or two postmortem for the removal process to kick in, so Wilson seemed reasonably sure that testing this mechanism would bear fruit.
He did some research, got a bunch of the chemicals typically present in decaying insects together, and started dabbing them on paper ant-substitutes to see which ones were treated more or less the same way a real dead ant would be. Some provoked no reaction, some threw the entire colony into an alarmed frenzy, and eventually one proved to have the exact correct response.
Thus it was that he found that once an ant has decomposed to the point that oleic acid is present in detectable quantities, the other ants will pick it up and remove it from the nest like the garbage it’s become. Ants are not, by nature, terribly sentimental creatures. They are, in fact, mostly just terrible.
So, mystery solved, right?
(It may have occurred to you as I was relating this. It may not have, too, and that’s fine. Let’s agree not to judge each other.)
What happens when you dab a little bit of that same acid on an ant that’s perfectly fine? What will her sisters do then?
Raise the sort of ant-ruckus rarely seen without the presence of a magnifying glass, because it’s the zombiepocalypse and why didn’t they listen to the old queen when she tried to warn them? Ignore her, because she’s behaving like a live thing and working away at colony business? Ignore her, because she’s moving and it’s only stationary objects that get this sort of treatment? Ignore her while she tries to wriggle away from them and go back to work as they carry her out to the ant graveyard?
(There are ants that live in plant-provided nests which sacrifice their dead to feed the god-thing that sustains them. There are spiders that war with them.)
These are the sort of things you think of, when a scientist tells a story about making ant-corpses out of paper.
But then sometimes the scientist goes on to say, “And of course, we wondered, what would happen if…?” and you get your answer.
Because this person, this person doing this thing across the gulf of decades reaches out, and says “I did this. This thing you wanted to do, this thing you wondered about, of course I did it, of course I wondered too.”
What happens, when a perfectly fine, perfectly live ant is doused with oleic acid, is that the ant is picked up, kicking and protesting, and carried to the graveyard, and left there. And when she gets up and, having no cause to believe herself dead, tries to go back home, some enterprising ant does the same thing. Again and again, with no sign of fatigue or alarm. She lives in the cemetery, incapable of understanding her situation, until a bout of habitual formicine self-cleaning miraculously resurrects her.