The idea of a collective consciousness (Or Anthill) is pretty simple: instead of cells you have small sentient animal that make up a larger creature. This is different from a hive mind in that the individuals of a hive mind are all sapient, but in a only the collective is.

When I tend to think of this species, I struggle with how they would appear. Unlike with an angel, a centaur or a merperson, I lack both the inner anatomy and outer form for what they would look like. I literally am starting from the barebone scratch of a creature.

This has made me ask, what would an anthill species look like? What would their biology be?

  • 1
    Does the fact that we are conscious affect our appearance? I don't think there is any limit to the shape of elements of a collective consciousness, or of the entire collective consciousness itself. Every species evolves their shape to handle their environment, and every environment is different. I do, however, believe there is some connection between what a collective consciousness looks like and what its elements look like, because the collective must leverage the individual's strengths, and protect its weaknesses. – Cort Ammon Jul 11 '16 at 22:34
  • Could you precisely define sapience and non-sapience? Do you mean the inner-animals have the exact level of sapience of a cell? In terms of cost, that doesn't really seem worth it for an organism. – PatJ Jul 11 '16 at 22:42
  • @PatJ there, edited for you – TrEs-2b Jul 11 '16 at 22:46
  • @CortAmmon the fact that its ''cells'' are the size of ants means that if we follow that logic, then they would be the size of a planet – TrEs-2b Jul 11 '16 at 22:46
  • How do you get from my logic to your claim in that last comment? I don't see the connection – Cort Ammon Jul 11 '16 at 22:51
up vote 21 down vote accepted

The anthill would be an aquatic monster.

At first they were only ants, then the flood came. It was huge, immense. Actually, the whole continent seemed to dive underwater. There was nowhere to go and most land animals died. But ants don't die, they never die. That was hundreds of millions of years ago, the ants never got back to the solid ground. They adapted, changed, coordinated more than ever.

Emphasized text should not necessarily be taken seriously.

Skeleton

The first anthills could not have survived without physical integrity. Air was still needed, so some ants became the anthill. First as an unorganized raft, then as more and more usefull backbones and limbs.

Bone ants are champions of gripping. Able to connect with each other in an extremely firm way, they form tubular structures (similar to those of the cytoskeleton of a cell) that can stretch from a few centimeters to several meters.

The interior of the tubes is reserved for "nervous" transmissions. The rest of the colony moves (and stays) on the anthill by grabbing the multiple handles the bone ants can provide.

The joints are more complex, some ants are specialized into sliding joints and some other ants are specialized into providing lubrication and maintenance.

Peripheric nervous system

As the food started to need effort (at first it was just eating the cadavers of those that can't survive into water), ants quickly needed to adapt. They needed to coordinate, quickly.

As stated before, the peripheric nervous system (PNS) goes inside the bones. Inside the tubes are extremely elongated ants that most of the times stretch as long as the bone does. Their nerves are actually directly connected to the joint-ants.

The joint-ant has several nerves (and so several different way to activate), the main functions being:

  • Controlling the joint rigidity
  • Activating/relaxing the muscles
  • Propagating back senses/pain

We now need to talk about...

Muscles

Food isn't always looking for you. Sometimes, you have to look for it. As in the water, ants could no longer go away from the colony, the colony had to move.

Compared to skeleton ants, muscle-ants are tiny. When a skeleton ant is usually 5mm long, a muscle-ant can rarely get to 0.5mm. Good thing there is a lot of them.

Muscle-ants don't transmit much chemical signal in the muscle process (they do in the building and repairing processes however). They mostly grip an ant before them and another behind them. They are mostly programmed to imitate on their behind-grip what happened to their front-grip. The delay caused by the "grip-transmission" gives the anthill a very flexible movement, adapted to swimming. Muscles constantly transmit how "hard" they find the stretching to be, signaling back the effort needed.

Tendon-ants are more complex, as they receive pheromone orders from the joints, initiate the grip with the muscles and maintain themselves within the joint. The latter is actually done thanks to their deformed antennas: they are stretched around the joint, at the same time ensuring reception of signals and physical connection.

Tendon themselves are about 2mm long and there is a lot of them on each side of the joint. Two of their legs are big in order to grip the bones, the other four are able to grip up to 30 muscles each.

Senses (and more on the PNS)

Moving is fine, and the colonies soon started following plankton gradients. But predators arose and the ants had bigger fish to hunt. Earing them was the key.

Throughout the skeleton, sensor-ants monitor chemicals (smell, taste) and mechanical (touch, sound) inputs as well as some other informations (heat, bubble presence, light-level).

These various senses are transmitted to the joints by courier ant that are constantly going through the bones. Each sensor is therefore connected to the two joints of its bone, allowing to approximately pinpoint the epicenter of the signals. Places that need a lot of precision simply have smaller bones, or, in very specific cases, directly connected joints.

Sensor information is first locally used by the joints. But let's see exactly how muscle activation works.

There are actually a lot of nerves just to activate one muscle, way more than for usual animals. They encode parameters for a big function, that function being mainly "how much grip to do with respect to the various senses, grip difficulty and your position in the skeleton tree".

This allows each node to be reactive while being centrally controlled.

Feeding of ants

The ants where now one, more than ever, they had to rely on each other to live. How could those proto-bones and proto-muscles be allowed to look for food?

Food is transported from the central digestive system to the limbs through simple worker ants. Bone and nerves having actually their mouths constantly connected to another ant's behind, the whole bone manages to feed itself through sharing.

Muscles, having a varying distance between each other, had to develop a different strategy. They made a friend! One very specific zooplankton has learned to live within the anthill at high concentrations. Good for the muscle ants, because the zooplankton learned to go by himself inside the tiny hard-workers belly and even pre-digest itself. Not that the plankton evolved to be stupid: being a prized guest in such a beauty has its perks.

Skin

What good is motion if you can't push water? For water movement and for the first time, ants needed surface.

Skin has a structure comparable to that of the bones, except it does not cycle on itself. The structure is weaker, and more flexible than bones. Dead ants are used as glue between skin-ants to augment impermeability.

Note that the colony is not covered in skin, it is only found where the anthill needs propulsion.

Eating and digesting

Where does the food come from? How could small ant eat big fishes? My mom told me no ant could eat me, but I never believed her. I know better.

A colony doesn't really have a mouth. More like a waterlock between the exterior and their stomach.

Outside the waterlock are lots of grabbing tentacles that push the food inside the hole. Remember the "some joints are directly linked together"? Tentacles.

The stomach itself is a big pocket. The "skin" ants glue themselves together (and to the bones) to provide a waterproof containment. Inside the stomach are the digesting ants. Former warriors made into highly chemically corrosive assailants and former workers cutting big pieces and transporting it to the exterior of the stomach. The non-edible materials are themselves used as cement and gravel to the glue surrounding the stomach.

Ant renewal

I tried to think about some joke about the Queen of the UK, but I found nothing worth it. Hey, have you noticed make less sense each chapter? Yeah, it's almost 4 am for me.

Right next to the stomach is the queen. The queen's job as not changed much since the colony still needs egg producing.

What's interesting though is that eggs are quickly moved out of the queen's chamber and placed where the final ant should be. A special pheromone as been developed to say "here's a new bone/muscle/nerve/other, make him hatch in the right spot". The need for ants is inferred through the analysis of the quality of food, muscular and bone input (or absence thereof, indicating a fracture) and some other and more obscure signals (of course it's more complex than that, it's alive!)

Reproduction

If the colony could not multiply, it could not evolve, and adapt, and survive. Anthills had to reproduce or be screwed. Am I a bad person? I'm not even ashamed.

Young future-queens are put at the farthest end of limbs and males have to go through the whole colony if they want to reproduce. Hijacking on their path workers and other ants. Only those with the material to perfectly communicate with the rest of the ants can get to transmit their genes.

Once impregnated, the now-queen hijacks nearby bone ants and detaches itself and its deserters to form a new entity. The first step of gestation is to create a proto-stomach and a chamber for the queen. Interestingly, the future stomach is also the gestating entity's placenta.

The hijacked ants having the signals from the mother colony, the baby can rely on its parent for food and shelter for a while. That is, until it has limbs too big to stay in the stomach. They then go out through the mouth-hole and the colony effectively becomes independent, killing the original renegades in the process of developing its own immune system.

Interestingly, some male ants may be able to impregnate females from other hills, providing there is direct physical contact between the two.

Central nervous system

The central nervous system is mainly required because fluid mechanics is weird. Like, super weird. Seriously, non-linear stuff.

The central nervous system (CNS) is a hive in itself. From birth until final death, it continuously grows. The neuron-ants have extremely small bodies and extremely long antennas. Each of their eight antennas (limbs were replaced) can reach up to a meter, effectively going through the whole brain, they basically work as axons. Neuron ants have some sort of hair that mimics the function of dendrites.

The CNS and the stomach are stuck together through special extra-strong links that can transmit the best possible food. The queen's chamber is stuck on that "neck".

General morphology

This is either a text about the ant's history or something silly.

Colonies take very various shapes. From far enough, they look like black skeletal sharks. However, the oldest colonies often stop having a regular (or even symmetrical) shape. This is only possible when the colony is old, because younger colonies can maintain a regular pattern and only the biggest and well-trained brains can handle a complex asymmetric body.

You've read through all of that text? Wow. I wouldn't.

  • This is amazing, great answer – TrEs-2b Jul 12 '16 at 3:02
  • Thanks! I'll need to add pics though. – PatJ Jul 12 '16 at 3:12
  • That'd be cool. – TrEs-2b Jul 12 '16 at 3:28
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    "Bone and nerves having actually their mouths constantly connected to another ant's behind, the whole bone manages to feed itself through sharing." - Thank you for making me think of the human centipede. Really, thank you! – John Dvorak Jul 12 '16 at 5:42
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    A friend once told be about a sea creature, actually made out of many organisms, which might match some of your description: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siphonophorae – Asoub Jul 12 '16 at 15:21

The Anthill Would be More of an Ant Pile

Quite literally a pile


As a living organism that needs to hunt, move and grow, remaining in one place would not be very good. The best solution is to act in a similar manner to army ants. Instead of always moving in a direction, they would move as a pile. The primary part of this pile would act as the anthill, with specialized ants guarding the outside. This caste would act as both the Immune system and skin, their best defense would be a combination of formic acid and trap jaws.

The Soldier Caste would also be present in the limbs (see further down) and in small numbers inside of the pile itself. They would be the most expendable of all castes and also the most common. The Soldier also takes on the task of telling the difference between friend and foe. Another caste similar to this would be the Drones, they would basically work as an extension of sight; while all of the ants would attribute to sight (giving Anthills 360 degree spherical vision), Drones would allow the Anthill to find food and predators much quicker.

Inside of this pile you would see a lot of odd grouping of different castes acting as different organs. The workers would act as the dirt on the diagram below. enter image description here

The Queen; The Circulatory, Immune and Reproductive System

The Queen would serve three human purposes; The Spleen, The Bone Marrow and the Reproductive system.

  • By laying eggs, she would be making members of castes, Doing this she works as the Spleen and the Bone Marrow. If the larva is a Drone, a Soldier or a Biter, then she made members of the Immune system acting as the bone marrow. If the larva is any other caste; Worker, Courier, etc then she has made members of the Circulatory system acting as the spleen. If she produces a queen, then the new queen will slowly bud off forming a new anthill, acting as the reproductive system (see the Reproduction System).

The Farms, Digestion

Ants as a species have been farming for over 50 million years. It is completely possible that a part of the digestive system would be a Farmer caste. Using aphid droppings or a kind of Fungus as food. This farming would have be the equivalent to fat storage in humans; the food produced would be used in case of lack of outside food. An interesting idea here is for ants to cultivate bioluminescent fungi in order to make themselves glow. The stomach as a digestive organ would not exist. It would be more akin to fat, since each ants would digest on its own, the stomach would only store food until an ant gets hungry.

The Reproductive System

Anthills would be a hermaphrodite species, able to act as both Male and Female. The female half produces Queens when resources are plenty and they have a mate to keep it alive. The male half provides the Queen with a place to grow while it is weak.

When the Queen produces a Queen (due to a high amount of resources available to the larva) The new Queen (or Princess) will fly into the Anthills mate where it will act similar to marsupial mammals. When inside the 'Father', it will be protected and provided with a breeding male to create a combination of genetic material. The new Queen starts to make its own ants, a specialized caste is needed (The Soldier Caste, see below) to tell that the Princess is not an intruder and alert other ants of this difference. As the Princess' ants grow in amount, she will start to bud off and eventually become her own Queen of a new Anthill.

Soldiers, The Immune System

enter image description here

As said above the Soldier Caste is the most important of all castes, they would be built to prevent disease from spreading by catching it and abandoning the pile, like a sick dog. Also the dumbest caste, they are weaker in all but 2 regards (in which they are ahead by a wide margin); Fighting and Smelling.

  1. They are are extremely powerful, using the 2 best weapons an individual ant has: Trap jaws and Formic acid. Trap Jaws, as seen above, work as razor sharp biological mousetraps delivering a very powerful bite. Formic acid is the simplest carboxylic acid, most commonly found in ant venom.
  2. Their defensive skills are matched only by their sense of smell. They can smell the difference between friendly things, such as other random anthills and enemies, such as predators or anthills with intent to harm and then transmit a scent to the rest of the colony with instructions to treat them as a friend or foe.

The Nervous System

Information and coordination works via pheromones and shared stomach contents between Ants, with no central controller, this is the primary difference between an animal and a collective. A specific caste, the Courier, specializing in sending messages directly to distant reaches rather than diffusing slowly through the population allows for the collective Anthill to think. These can relay messages from one organ to another, directly and quickly. Like an octopus, the Anthill has distributive intelligence, Couriers are found in every part of the pile. Couriers are not like nerve tissue, they are nerve tissue.

The Couriers work by using pheromones, which in turn rely on the hardest sense to duplicate; smell. These pheromones work much like electrical energy in the human brain, though not as efficient, they replace intelligence for a better rounded creature.

Growth and Death

The only factor that limits an Anthills growth is the amount of resources available to it. Similar to a cell, where at a certain size the food will not be able to reach the nucleus, size is a factor for Anthills. If the anthill becomes to large it will need to not only always eat, but be on a food source. Unlike most Earthern animals, age and size have no similarity or connection in Anthills. After a new Anthill buds off, it will technically be fully grown, though the will still age. An Anthill will likely be considered 'fully grown' when it is able to reproduce (though cultural reasons may change this)

When it comes to aging, wounds and disease, Anthills are practically immortal. The Queen simply replaces herself as the spleen when she nears death, Wounds are not a problem due to the Anthills lack of blood and disease only kills an individual ant. Of course these are generalizations and they do have exceptions. For example, the Anthill has a very high metabolism and thus is very susceptible to starvation, especially in a community. Aging also has its limits, as (unless you go with the self reproducing method) the Anthill needs a mate to prevent dying of old age within 30 years, also even assuming the Anthill can endless provide itself with a new queen memory would be fading quickly after 100+ years considering smell is its primary source of memory. Wounds are an Anthills strongest immunity, the only way to kill an Anthill with wounds is to 1; kill the queen or 2; kill all the ants. Saying an Anthill is immune to disease is a stretch, because if the disease is contagious and the first ant to catch it spreads it before leaving, then the Anthill is like any other animal with disease.

Feeding

Emerging from the Central pile are "limbs" (I use the term loosely, a better name would be Chains) consisting of primarily Soldiers with a few Couriers. these will protrude from the central pile for many different reasons.

enter image description here

  1. To meet a predator early on, same reason you put an army outside the castle. By fighting the enemy from a distance, you decrease the odds of damage to the central pile.

  2. Hunting. If it takes less energy to drag the prey to the central pile than to move the pile (which, unless it ways equal to or more than the pile it is) then it makes more sense to drag the prey.

  3. On of the biggest advantages to a collective over monobodied animals is their ability to spread out and search as a group. For example, if the Pile is starving they can send multiple chains in random directions, follow the one that finds food and let the others die.
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    I hope you write a good story based on this! – JDługosz Jul 11 '16 at 23:07
  • @JDługosz God, I have so many stories In the works now I hope I can find time :D – TrEs-2b Jul 11 '16 at 23:10
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    As something of an amateur mymecologist myself, I have to ask why you think it would need to move in a ball? Army ants themselves don't do that except under special circumstances. Superorganisms succeed BECAUSE they are spread out, not because they make poor imitations of monolithic organisms. – Adam Wykes Jul 12 '16 at 3:54
  • @AdamWykes I didn't say ball anywhere in my answer, if you mean pile, then there are two answers. 1. because strength in numbers doesn't work as well if the the numbers are too spread out. 2. It allows for much quicker cross colony communication. I would Love to discuss more on ants with you if you have time. – TrEs-2b Jul 12 '16 at 4:15
  • I'm all about ant discussion! Not sure how to go about doing that without needlessly filling up this comment section... – Adam Wykes Jul 12 '16 at 5:59

Does the Portuguese Man O' War (also known as Blue Bottle jellyfish) ring a bell? This organism may be simple, but it is a real-world example of an 'ant-hill' organism. It may not look it, but the Man O' War is actually four polyps joined and dependent of each-other, each with different roles:

  • the sail (the tell-tail 'blue bottle') propels and suspends the 'individual'on the waves
  • the tentacles, protection and capturing of food
  • digestion
  • and of course the last polyp is responsible for reproduction

Though a more amorphous form could be possible, (ant pile as you stated) each component organism could be extremely specialized and the product of their cooperation could look quite synthetic or mechanical, like the Man O' War.

Of course, given enough time and specialization these component organisms could reach a point where a border cannot or is difficult to be drawn between them, essentially creating a true individual.

As for each role specifically, the cells of multi-cellular organisms would be a perfect example. reproduction, digestion and physical function (tentacles and sail) already exist, so other organ-organisms could very well exist.

Heart components could be numerous along the body, with its main component being a strong muscle to pump nutrients.

The 'blood' vessels could be individuals with structures much like xylem and phloem, passing on nutrients in a chain and dispersing a portion outward to surrounding organisms (perhaps in this case the heart organism isn't needed?).

Specialized components with a non-soluble layer on one side could make up the ant-hill's skin.

Digestive organisms could specialize in different substances, probably making the ant-hill immune to many toxins.

Specialized tentacles could provide mobility on land (a fully formed leg seems unrealistic), although perhaps land dwelling organisms would be immobile, being subterranean or even a parasite, though this kind of organism would thrive in the ocean, where a form is easier to keep and there are easier modes of mobility.

Optic and other senses could be specialized by one organism, and there is the potential for a simple neural system between smaller 'neuron organisms'.

  • I agree, a heart would be unnecessary +1 – TrEs-2b Jul 12 '16 at 0:42
  • I also find Cnidaria to be an interesting example in different ways to make a more complex organism. – JDługosz Jul 12 '16 at 0:47

Alternatively for a simpler consciousness, I'd like to take two key aspects of the largest organism on Earth, Armillaria solidipes, Which is a clonal colony of many mushroom parts that grow together and eat decaying trees.

1) Being clonal every part of the fungus performs the same role. This makes each bit is expendable. Having uniform bodies simplifies the collective consciousness, and prevents a single point of failure.

2) Parasites have easy rules of engagement. Connecting to hosts and sapping their energy to grow allows for a simple form of spreading. Since a collective consciousness has many moving parts, allowing them to follow basic rules simplifies the required communication between individuals.

The key to this creature would be it must be simple enough and not specialized so that the need for sharing one mind is evident. If some individuals are too specialized, it may seem less plausible that they share the same thoughts.

Visually I would expect these to look like a small spherical object with legs, similar to an Opiliones.

Communication would best be done through some sort of radio wave, so that signals could be passed between nodes without need for contact. Having some sort of electromagnetic antenna would make this possible.

How about the creatures are small parasites. They evolved the ability to interface with neurons in a simple way. They can detect pulses on a nerve and they can send pulses onto a nerve. They use an organ called a synaptic interface to do this. This same organ can send and receive pulses from the organs of another parasite.

Now we have a creature that can form a neural net AND a creature that can plug into the nervous systems of other creatures. So, each parasite is non-conscious, non-sentient. It is acting only on instinctive programming. However, consciousness is emergent when a huge (trillions) number of these parasites interface with each other (following simple rules). Further, this emergent consciousness can trap and link into the nervous system of other standard animals, taking it over and using it for locomotion, etc.

So the anthill animal could be a tumor-like blob, a blood infection, a film on the ground or water, or a pile of mold or algae, just about anything where sufficient numbers of small parasites can make physical contact and organize. Then, any larger creature that is unfortunate enough to stumble into the colony, or host the colony, would be subject to being interfaced to the colony. The result of such might be different and might change over time as the size of the colonies net increases and the depth of the infection/interface with the host/captured animal increases.

In this case, your question about internal anatomy could be answered thus: the anthill creature is a colony of identical parasites that do show an internal organized structure, similar to a human brain in analogy, which is the result of the individuals responding to simple environmental stimulie. The host animal's internal workings are its own, with the exception that its nervous system has been compromised at one or more interface sites by the colony.

I'm sorry this is not as clear as I hoped it would be. The important point in my story is that the individual "ants" are dumb as bricks. Only their ability and tendency to form large networks allows for intelligence and/or consciousness to emerge. And if they decide to all scatter, they can crawl away to the four points of the compass. Each individual will be unchanged, but the consciousness that had developed will poof out of existence, never to be recreated exactly the same again, even if the same individuals all crawl back together again.

Georgia Tech researched that ants will bunch up together http://antlab.gatech.edu/antlab/The_Ant_Raft.html

So perhaps a collective consciousness would look a little like this

enter image description here

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