Do Animals Go to War?

Video highlights from Animal Fight Club

In the brutal animal kingdom, chimpanzees gang up to expand territory and ants raid other colonies to take slaves.

As we enjoy the return of Star Wars and its big-screen battles, is there also warfare going on under our feet?

Tiny Terrors

Actually, “termites do not raid ants. It is rather the reverse,” Abdullahi Ahmed Yusuf, an entomologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, says by email.

For instance, matabele ants prey on termites, storming their colonies in huge numbers. But Yusuf says it’s a hunting strategy—not what we would call war.

Slave-making ants—yes, that's actually their common name—also stage raids on other ant species, notes Katy Prudic, an entomologist at Arizona State University.

“They put out a perfume that is a mimic” of the host ants’ alarm scent, making their victims panic and leave their nests. This allows the slave-makers to come in and steal the host’s brood, which will grow up to serve the raiding ants.

Other social insects mount attacks, too, Prudic says. Japanese giant hornets assault the hives of their prey, Japanese honeybees. The bees retaliate by swarming lone hornet scouts with vibrating wings.

“The vibrating honeybees heat the hornet above its thermal tolerance,” Prudic says: “Basically, they cook it.”

Sometimes, adds University of Florida entomologist Philip Koehler, perceived enemies get along. For instance, “it's common for ants and termites to cohabit nests,” he says by email.

Guerilla Chimps

Do other animals go to war? Since our close relative the chimpanzee is often thought of as war-like, we took the question to Nicholas E. Newton-Fisher, a primate behavioural ecologist at the University of Kent.

“It probably depends on the definition of ‘war,'” Newton-Fisher says by email. “There’s good evidence that chimpanzees conduct deliberate raids on neighbouring communities, and that this can lead to annexing of territory."

For instance, during a ten-year study of a chimp family in Uganda's Kibale National Park, the primates killed or injured 18 chimps from other groups and took over their land.

“The behaviour of chimpanzees is much more akin to a guerrilla band"—wearing down the enemy—than what we think of as a traditional battle, Newton-Fisher says.

Unlike humans, chimps don't “form into opposing armies, and fight it out to see who wins,” nor do “two communities ally to defeat a third.”

Animal groups do compete over resources, sometimes in an organized way, but “war” implies something more formal, Dan Dembiec, supervisor of mammals at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, says via email.

Bottom line? The term "war" is “inappropriate to describe conflict in the non-human animal kingdom,” he says.

We're ok with that—as long as they don’t fight for the Dark Side.

By Liz Langley

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