In Unity Is Strength
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

In Unity Is Strength

In most herd animal groups, newborn infants have very few minutes to get on their sticklike legs and be able to run with the herd. These are the most dangerous few minutes in the life of the newborn, for all sorts of predators such as hyenas, jackals, and lions prowl around the vicinity of the herd waiting for easy prey. Sometimes the herd will protect the mother and calf during and after the birthing. The following account was witnessed by several scientists, who recorded the incident on film.

A newborn wildebeest calf was having difficulty getting to its feet. Sensing a favorable opportunity, a hyena approached. Immediately a number of adults formed a broad front, protecting the calf still thrashing on the ground. Wildebeest beside wildebeest presented a formidable row of sharp horns, and the hyena skulked away. Almost immediately afterward a lioness attempted to approach the newborn. Normally the big cat's appearance would have resulted in the herd galloping off in wild flight. Instead they closed ranks, once again forming a menacing vanguard. This courageous defiance impressed the lioness, and she didn't attack the horned front line but slunk off to safer ground. By that time the calf had gained its feet and was able to run with the herd.

Naturalists have observed that wild geese, when numerous, will draw into a close battle line against a fox. In the face of this determined spirit, even an animal so passionately fond of geese (between its jaws) has no choice but to retreat.

The springboks in South Africa used a variation on the close defensive line. Toward the end of the 18th century they were so numerous that they loped across the plains in herds of up to 50,000 animals. According to reliable accounts, when an inexperienced young lion attempted to attack them they would encircle the predator and force it to march along in their midst. If the lion was unable to escape, it would be entrapped by the springbok herd until it collapsed from hunger or exhaustion and then would be trampled to death.

A rather remarkable event occurred near the town of Surat, India. A 15—year—old shepherd was attacked by a young tiger. The sheep immediately gathered into a dense formation and ran at the surprised tiger; it turned and fled in complete panic. The shepherd boy emerged from the encounter terrified but uninjured.

On the principle of strength in unity, starlings en masse are a formidable challenge to the hawk, which considers a single starling an easy feast. Ornithologists have often witnessed the bad judgment of a hawk attacking a flock (actually a murmuration) of starlings in a field. A thousand or more birds will instantly form an assault squadron that overwhelms the hawk as it circles the field and, in a mere second, forces it to land. Unable to take off again, the hawk become easy prey.

Not just animal enemies but even inanimate hazards are often surmounted by comrades of the herd, flock, or colony. Moreover, group support is provided not only by higher life forms but also by robotlike ant societies. In fact, if the others of the colony did not respond to their distress signals, the leaf—cutting ants of tropical regions might have become extinct some eons ago.

After heavy rainstorms, the tunnels in the underground labyrinths of leaf—cutting ants frequently collapse. The buried ants produce sos signals, and rescue squads set off to find them and dig them out. By rubbing the rough surfaces of their abdominal segments together, the buried victims produce an ultrasonic noise picked up by vibration—sensitive cells on the feet of the search and rescue team. The liberators are able to trace the source of the distress calls directionally. Rescue includes reopening the collapsed passageway and getting the buried leaf—cutters back on the job.

Other defense mechanisms of leaf—cutting ants are even more elaborate. These ants are most vulnerable while cutting up leaves or carrying bits of leaf back to the fungus garden; since their mandibles are in use they are completely defenseless. On spring afternoons a tiny fly, appropriately called the "ant beheader," dive—bombs the worker and deposits an egg on the victim's neck. The fly larva hatches and bores into the ant's head, gradually eating until it is hollow. Then the larva bites off the hollowed—out head and uses it as a capsule in which to pupate. Such indiscriminate slaughter must be met head—on, and the leaf—cutters have an antiaircraft squadron to deal with the flies. Groups of dwarf ants that usually work underground in the fungus gardens accompany the parade of leaf—cutters. As soon as the flies attack, several dwarfs surround the leaf—cutter and snap at the enemy with their mandibles. When they have routed the threatening beheaders, they climb on the leaf the worker is carrying and taxi back to the nest. Even then they act as antiaircraft troops by keeping the ant beheaders out of their way.