It’s the insect version of squeezing glue from a bottle. This adult weaver in Australia holds a silk-producing larva in its jaws, spreading the larva’s sticky secretions to bind leaves for the colony nest. Few animals match such intricate homemaking techniques.
That ant might be a queen mother, weighing about the same as a few grains of salt. But she, along with other queens and their worldwide empires, would match the weight of the seven billion people seething across the planet these days. Plus, the queens and their offspring have been living in large, highly organized, cooperative societies—practicing activities from strategic army warfare to agriculture and livestock herding—for at least 50 million years. We've been at it for, what, 10,000, tops?
I'd nominate entomologist and photographer Mark Moffett as the aliens' escort. During years of jungle quests he has discovered new ant species and astonishing ant behaviors. Even over breakfast here in the rain forest of Queensland, Australia, he's pondering what sort of organism an ant colony amounts to, since it is this social group as a whole, not the individual, that really competes in the struggle for survival and evolves over time. Consider the colony as a unified body in which individual members are like cells, with castes of them performing separate duties like specialized organs.
Just above our heads, in the rain forest canopy, streams the almost perfect society. In other tropical and subtropical woodlands, scores of different ant species may share a single tree. But there's little room for coexistence where the ants known as Oecophylla make their home—one species here in Australia and in southern Asia, the other in parts of Africa. Long-legged and lithe, they so aggressively dominate huge territories in the forest canopies that locals simply call them the tree ants.