Planet Ant DVD Review: Tiny Social Wonders

Planet Ant acts as part of a special season of BBC Four programs that originally aired starting in 2013, and are centered around taking a close-up look at the insect world. If you had an ant farm growing up, you might think you know a thing or two about ants. Expand that to the size of an entire room, build it out with cameras, radio tracking, tunnels, an ample food source, and a migrated colony of thousands of leafcutter ants, and now you’re really cooking. This is exactly the challenge taken on by entomologist Dr. George McGavin and leafcutter expert Professor Adam Hart.

Once the colony housing was constructed, they were tasked with finding occupants. As ants tend to dwell underground and some of the most prolific species are nocturnal, it wasn’t easy. A farmer in Trinidad was about to destroy an ideal nest when Hart swooped in to collect them for study. Finding the queen ant intact inside a mound the size of an SUV can be daunting and even dangerous, as the soldier ants come out in droves to attack the invaders.

Once excavated, a large portion of the colony population was flown back to Scotland where they would hopefully pick up where they left off back home, growing fungus and making babies, primarily. Sure enough, the ants scouted out their new digs and in under a month’s time had reconstructed everything for their ecosystem from nurseries to gardens to graveyards. Along the way we learn how different classes of ants are bred from essentially uniform stock eggs, how their unique class numbers are determined and maintained, how ants discover new habitats that are suited to their species’ needs, how they locate and signal other ants toward new or better food sources, and some of their uncanny survival tactics including building walls and unsinkable rafts with their own bodies. They even attached tiny radio transmitters to some of the soldier ants to track their patrol routes, which, as it turns out, follow distinct routes and patterns. Nothing about the ant world is random or done without purpose or study.

Toward the end of the 90-minute documentary, we see how ant behavior modeling is used in real world applications, from finding more efficient shipping routes to slingshotting spacecraft around planets, one after another, to reach a far-off destination using the least amount of fuel possible. Of course, no examination of the natural world and those who make it their home would be complete without seeing what we can learn from them in terms of sustainability of energy and resources in our own consumer-heavy human world.

The DVD offers only subtitle options as far as extras are concerned. The picture quality is generally decent, though in some places the lower resolution of the format really takes a toll on apparent levels of detail. At least a couple of times I wished I were viewing a HD/Blu-ray version of the material, but I’m probably spoiled by the other BBC Earth productions already on BD. Though the trimmings and polish may not be significant, the content is engaging and well produced, edited, and sequenced. Multiple timelines’ events are told simultaneously, keeping the viewer moving from one thing to the next. If you’re even remotely curious about ant life or the complexity of their colony, class structure, behavior, and so on, definitely check out this documentary. You’ll never watch the movie Aliens the same way again.

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Mark Buckingham

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