Ants talk to each other in some interesting ways. But how? Spoiler: It's not via text message.
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So, we’ve all seen ants. Here’s a picture of one. Doesn’t look like much, right? Alone, a single ant might not feel like something to write home about. Most times, she’ll be pretty small (and she’ll be a ‘she’), fairly vulnerable and non-threatening.
Ant abilities differ widely from one species to the next. And there are more than 12,000 known species. Again, that’s known species. They outnumber us a million to one, coordinating massive operations to provide food, shelter, and defense to their colony. As any myrmecologist will tell you, chief among an ant’s super powers is its ability to communicate. In fact, ants primarily communicate through the release of chemicals called ‘pheromones’. Generally, the glands responsible for these pheromones are located in the head, thorax, gaster, and legs. They’re typically released from the mandibles, gaster and cuticle – that’s the hard outer layer of an ant’s body.
Different pheromones indicate different things, and each species can have their own type of pheromones system. So there’s one chemical, or mixture of chemicals, that indicates danger, one for foraging and so on. Ants detect these pheromones using their antennae, and they’re pretty good at it. Let’s say you’re at a picnic. You’re unwrapping – I don’t know, a sandwich or whatever – and you see one lone ant. But here’s how the scout hips the rest of her crew to the potential heist: as she’s foraging, she’s laying down pheromones, kind of like how Hansel and Gretel laid down breadcrumbs in that fairy tale. When and if she does find a large source of food, she hightails back to the ant headquarters releasing more of the pheromone along the way, creating a trail that other ants in her colony can follow. The better the food source, the stronger the trail. As other foragers arrive to assist, they also lay down pheromones and reinforce the trail.
And, like everything with ants, the way they treat these trails really depends on the species. Some ant species will only follow their own chemical trails, while others may pick up on pheromones from other ant species.
Ants also communicate by touching each other’s cuticles and deriving information about each other from hydrocarbons. The different types of cuticular hydrocarbons – and there are a lot – each have their own odor, indicating numerous things about the individual ant, from its home colony to its tasks. Ants also communicate through movement, like vibration or touching each other during tandem running. Leafcutter ants, for instance, vibrate to indicate things like danger or a particularly tasty leaf.
There’s one other very important distinction here: Ants don’t communicate directly. Instead, they use modulatory communication. They don’t consciously decide to send out a message saying “go find some food, my dudes.” And other ants don’t think “ah, man. It’s hot outside, but OK.” The signals ants send only increase the probability that other ants will change their behavior in response to the stimuli. And, as we can see, it’s worked out pretty well for them.
“Little Creatures Who Run The World” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2203crea.html
“Ant History Revealed” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3014011.stm
“Shhh! The Ants are talking” http://news.sciencemag.org/2013/02/shhh-ants-are-talking
“Ant Communication” http://animals.howstuffworks.com/13629-ant-communication-video.htm
"Ant" 22 April 2008. HowStuffWorks.com. http://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/ant-info.htm 30 July 2014.
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