Without any of our knowledge, technology and speech there is a non-human species that actually manages to organize its society better than we do. It’s our little but powerful fellow earthling the ant. How they do it is a mystery, but the discovery of a new ant skill now sheds some light on their communication. The little workers turn out to have an excellent sense of smell.
A research team of Vanderbilt university, led by Lawrence Zwiebel, discovered the little insects have 400 different odorant receptors. This is a lot more than honeybees, who only have 174, or fruitflies, with just 61 receptors. This rich smelling repertoire could help to explain the ants division of labour, one-to-one communication and solving of complex problems, say the researchers.
It was already suspected that chemical communication is important in ant behavior. Another researcher, Stanford professor Deborah Gordon, saw this during her twenty years of studying different ant colonies. She wanted to understand how ants know what to do without any guidance of a leader. It can not be the queen deep down in the ground that directs the behavior of all the other ants, she thinks. Especially not when the ants react to changes outside the nest.
Gordon tested this by putting extra food outside of the nest, having before carefully marked all the different outside-operating ants of the colony, all with a longterm task of patrolling, foraging or maintaining the nest. The organization showed a quick adaptation to the new situation. Some nest maintenance or patrolling ants didn’t stick to their regular tasks, but turned into forager ants to help collect the food.
According to Gordon this must have been communicated between the ants. When going in and out of the nest ants often make contact with each other by putting their antennas together. What for? Probably smelling. Zwiebel and his team found the large number of odorant receptors right on these antennas.
View Gordon’s TED presentation about her studies on ants here.
Picture: Flickr / ‘jasonbolonski’
Source: Vanderbilt University
Zhou X, Slone JD, Rokas A, Berger SL, Liebig J, et al. (2012). Phylogenetic and Transcriptomic Analysis of Chemosensory Receptors in a Pair of Divergent Ant Species Reveals Sex-Specific Signatures of Odor Coding PLoS Genet 8