Nav: Home

Carpenter ants: When social instructions may be dangerous

October 25, 2016

Why do social beings sometimes put their own common sense aside to follow the lead of others, even though by doing so they could be brought to death's door? Research on carpenter ants (Camponotus mus) led by Roxana Josens of the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina is the first to show that so-called social information delivered by other ants often overrides an individual's assessment that a certain food source is toxic. The findings are published in Springer's journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Social insects such as carpenter ants rely on sophisticated communication channels and on individual decision making to ensure that foraging as a group is done effectively. On the one hand, ants gather personal information through their first-hand experience of their environment or the quality of the food they find. Group members also share social information gathered by other nest members. This can be done when they swap food during the mouth-to-mouth exchange process called trophallaxis. It allows group members to pick up on odors and tastes, which they then go on to link with specific food stuffs.

Josens' team wanted to establish which type of information weighs most when carpenter ants forage for food: personal or social information. They therefore conducted a series of laboratory and field experiments to determine if a toxic substance, known to be a strong and harmful deterrent for carpenter ants, could become acceptable if it is associated with an odorant present in food being exchanged via trophallaxis. The team therefore exposed receiver ants to a toxic food (sugar-water mixed with boric acid) with the same odor they had previously learned about through trophallaxis.

Both experiments showed that ants can detect whether there is a toxic compound in a solution, and that they will reject it as a possible source of food. However, it was found that the odor experienced in a social trophallactic contact overrides individual ants' food assessment. This happens to such an extent that ants go on to collect the toxic food whenever the odor coincided with ones they learnt about from others, regardless of its harmful qualities. However, unscented toxic food was rejected by those ants that received no odor food by trophallaxis. Even more, the toxic food with odor was also rejected by ants that were confronted directly with this food and its odor because of their own first-hand experience and evaluation about the quality of the food source.

"Our results show how the assessment of a toxic food is overridden by social information," says Josens. She highlights the fact that these findings are contrary to those of most previous studies where social insects face a conflict between social instructions and individual experiences.

"In our work the individual information accessible to foragers was not a memory acquired in a previous foraging bout but their current individual sensing of toxic food when the decision of feed or not should be made," explains Josens. "The individual expectation generated by social information overrides the individual assessment of food toxicity."
Reference: Josens, R. et al. (2016). Food Information acquired socially overrides individual food assessment in ants, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. DOI 10.1007/s00265-016-2216-x


Related Ants Articles:

Ants restore Mediterranean dry grasslands
A team of ecologists and agronomists led by Thierry Dutoit, a CNRS researcher, studied the impact of the Messor barbarus harvester ant on Mediterranean dry grasslands.
Risk aversion as a survival strategy in ants
Ants are excellent navigators and always find their way back to the nest.
Epigenetic switch found that turns warrior ants into forager ants
In 2016, researchers observed that they could reprogram the behavior of the Florida carpenter ant Camponotus floridanus.
Larger than life: Augmented ants
The first app of its kind allows users to interact with biodiversity research through augmented reality.
Ants: Jam-free traffic champions
Whether they occur on holiday routes or the daily commute, traffic jams affect cars as well as pedestrians.
Ants fight plant diseases
New research from Aarhus University shows that ants inhibit at least 14 different plant diseases.
Australian ants prepared for 'Insect Armageddon'
La Trobe University researchers have uncovered an exception to the global phenomenon known as 'Insect Armageddon' in the largest study of Australian insect populations conducted to date.
Timing is everything for the mutualistic relationship between ants and acacias
Ant-acacia plants attract ants by offering specialized food and hollow thorns in which the ants live, while the ant colony in turn defends its acacia against herbivores.
Robot-ants that can jump, communicate with each other and work together
A team of EPFL researchers has developed tiny 10-gram robots that are inspired by ants: they can communicate with each other, assign roles among themselves and complete complex tasks together.
From vibrations alone, acacia ants can tell nibbles from the wind
Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on Feb. 14 find that the ants of the acacia tree are tipped off to the presence of herbivores by vibrations that run throughout the trees when an animal gets too close or begins to chew.
More Ants News and Ants Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at