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Fungus, Fruit Flies, Old Age: It's The End Times For NPR's AntCam

Back in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, there were no guarantees. There were no guarantees that they'd make it there and there were no guarantees that they could make it back home.

President Richard Nixon and his speech writer William Safire knew that. So, imagining a situation in which the American astronauts were doomed in an alien land, Safire drew up a plan to mark their inevitable demise in a dignified way.

In a speech, the president would thank them and say that while there was "no hope for their recovery," there is "hope for mankind in their sacrifice."

A clergyman would commend their souls to the "the deepest of the deep." And at some point, before their death, NASA would cut communication.

We're not saying our ants are American heros. But when we dropped them into their blue habitat with NASA gel, we didn't know where it would lead.

During the past week or so, the ants have slowly begun to die.

It doesn't look good: The ants left alive are trying to bury their dead at the top of the farm. But, slowly, stemming from the cadavers the blue hue of the gel has been tainted with a brown, reddish growth.

Corrie Moreau, assistant curator of the division of insects at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, tells us our ants are faced with a common fate.

That reddish growth is probably mold or mildew or a wind blown pollen. In gel-based colonies, says Moreau, it could also be that a fruit fly has laid eggs and maybe soon, we'll see larvae crawling around the tunnels.

The ants, says Moreau, are trying their best to "groom" themselves. They're moving their dead from the tunnels to the top of the farm to avoid disease. But at some point, besieged by disease or old age, the dead will litter the tunnels and their colony will crumble.

How long that will take is anyone's guess. The places that sell these ants, said Moreau, usually collect the ones foraging on the outside of the colony. They're usually the older ones.

We asked Moreau what would happen if we let the ants free. Unaccustomed to Washington's climate and predators, they won't live long, she says. Even if they survived, without a queen, they have no chance of establishing other colonies.

It's bleak. It's sad. It's a lot like what happens in nature, Moreau says, when a queen gets old and starts laying fewer eggs and the ants can no longer bring in enough food and care for their home and their tunnels start crumbling.

Taking inspiration from Safire, this is our goodbye. As we predicted in our first post, the ants created a thing of beauty — a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers created with uncanny team work.

Before it gets ugly, we're pulling the plug. The NPR AntCam will go dark at midnight.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.