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Ants have a communications system that closely resembles mental telepathy

We’ve all seen the ant communication system in action. Picture this: You spot a lone ant skittering across your kitchen floor. In a week’s time, it feels like the entire colony has set up camp in your home. But even after setting traps, you only manage to catch a handful, and the rest vanish without a trace.

Such mysterious behavior now has a plausible explanation, thanks to a study published in the scientific journal, Cell, on June 14.

How does ant communication work from long distances?

The research focuses on the role of danger-signaling pheromones. These are chemical cues ants use to communicate with their fellow nestmates. They then try and determine how these triggers activate a specific section of an ant’s brain, altering the behavior of the whole colony.

Taylor Hart of The Rockefeller University, the lead author of the study, highlighted the complexity of these tiny creatures’ social structures and communication systems.

“Humans aren’t the only animals with complex societies and communication systems,” Hart says, pointing out that “over the course of evolution, ants have evolved extremely complex olfactory systems compared to other insects, which allows them to communicate using many different types of pheromones that can mean different things.”

Communication hub found in ant brains is similar to humans

In essence, ants possess a unique communication hub in their brains that’s similar to humans. This nerve center decodes alarm pheromones, or “danger signals”, from other ants.

Interestingly, it appears that this part of the ant’s brain may be more specialized than in other insects like honeybees, which have been previously believed to rely on several brain parts to react to a single pheromone.

Corresponding author Daniel Kronauer also of The Rockefeller University, describes this as a “sensory hub in the ant brain that all the panic-inducing alarm pheromones feed into.”

How the ant communication study was conducted

The researchers scanned the brain activity of clonal raider ants exposed to danger signals, using an engineered protein named GCaMP. This protein binds to calcium ions, illuminating brain activity. The resulting fluorescent chemical compound is visible on high-resolution microscopes specially adapted for the task.

During the scans, it was observed that the danger signals triggered activity in only a small section of the ants’ brains. Despite this, the ants exhibited immediate and intricate responses, leading researchers to term these reactions as the “panic response”. Such behaviors included fleeing, evacuating the nest, and transporting their offspring to safer locations.

Different colony sizes use different pheromones

Ant species with different colony sizes employ different pheromones to relay diverse messages. “In the wild, clonal raider ants usually have a colony size of just tens to hundreds of individuals, which is pretty small as far as ant colonies go,” Hart explains.

This might be why these smaller colonies display ‘panic responses’ – their primary goal is survival, and they cannot afford to lose many members. In contrast, army ants, cousins of the clonal raider ants, boast of much larger colonies, sometimes reaching up to hundreds of thousands or even millions of individuals, making them more aggressive.

Irrespective of the species, ants within a colony segregate themselves by caste and role, each with slightly different anatomical features. For this study, the researchers selected clonal raider ants due to their ease of control, focusing on one sex within one caste and role (female worker ants) for consistency.

This controlled approach will facilitate the observation of widespread patterns, paving the way for a clearer understanding of neural differences among different castes, sexes, and roles in ant colonies, thereby enabling researchers to decipher how different ant brains process the same signals.

Hart shares that “we can start to look at how these sensory representations are similar or different between ants.” Adding to this, Kronauer notes that they’re looking into the “division of labor. Why do individuals that are genetically the same assume different tasks in the colony? How does this division of labor work?”

Reshaping our understanding and appreciation of ants

This groundbreaking research on ant communication is set to reshape our understanding of these industrious insects. It reveals how the intricate societal structures we observe in human societies might not be unique to us but are mirrored, in their own way, within these minute creatures.

Ant colonies, despite their seemingly simple existence, operate on a complex system of communication and organization that closely resembles the way larger, more advanced societies function. By uncovering the complex olfactory systems ants have evolved and the sophisticated “panic responses” they can trigger, this study allows us to delve deeper into the fascinating, unseen world of ants.

In doing so, it emphasizes that there is still so much to learn about these creatures and how they organize their colonies. It’s not only about the size or the aggression level of a colony but also about the intricate communication systems that underpin their existence.

Many unanswered questions remain about ant communication

Studying how ants interpret and respond to danger signals is a step forward, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The different caste systems, roles, and even the sex within a colony can influence how they react.

By isolating female worker ants from the clonal raider ants species, the researchers have created a platform that ensures consistency in their observations. This will undoubtedly pave the way for future studies exploring how different factors influence ant behavior.

The authors of the study, Hart and Kronauer, hint at what the future might hold. They envisage a world where we can compare the sensory representations across different ant species and look deeper into the division of labor within the colonies.

“Why do individuals that are genetically the same assume different tasks in the colony? How does this division of labor work?” Kronauer asks, pointing to the tantalizing questions the study raises.

Unraveling the mysteries of ant communication could provide us with valuable insights into ant societies, which are among the most successful on the planet, and could potentially have far-reaching implications on our understanding of animal behavior and societal structures.

Who knew that the unassuming ant skittering across your kitchen floor could be part of such an intricate and complex societal structure?

More about ants

Ants are fascinating creatures. They are eusocial insects of the family Formicidae, part of the order Hymenoptera, which also includes bees and wasps.

They are notable for their structured colony life, where they form organized societies that are sometimes compared to human ones due to their complexity. Here’s an overview of their characteristics, behavior, and more:


There are over 12,000 identified species of ants worldwide, though estimates suggest that the actual number of species could be much higher, potentially over 20,000. They inhabit a diverse range of habitats, including grasslands, forests, deserts, and even the cold climes of the Arctic Circle.


Ants, like all insects, have a hard exoskeleton that protects their bodies. They have three distinct body parts: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. On their head, they have two strong mandibles for carrying food and other items, two antennae for touch and smell, and compound eyes for detecting movement and light levels.

Colony Structure

Most ant colonies contain three castes: workers, males, and queens. Worker ants, which are typically sterile females, do the majority of the labor within the colony, such as foraging for food, caring for the young, and defending the nest. Queens are fertile females responsible for laying all of the eggs in a colony. Males have only one role: to mate with the queens.

Ant communication

Ants communicate using pheromones, sound, and touch. They use pheromones to leave trails for other ants to follow, often to food sources, and to signal danger or alert the colony to various situations. Some species also use sounds or physical gestures to communicate.

Cooperation and Labor Division

Ant colonies display a remarkable level of cooperation and division of labor, with different ants having specific jobs depending on their age, size, or caste. This division of labor and cooperative behavior allows ant colonies to accomplish tasks that would be impossible for individual ants, such as taking down large prey or building intricate nests.

Diet and Foraging

Ants have a varied diet, and their food preferences can differ greatly depending on the species. Some are omnivorous, eating a mix of plant and animal material, while others may specialize in seeds, fungi, or other insects. Many species have a foraging strategy where worker ants will search for food and then leave a pheromone trail for other ants to follow once they find a source of food.

Impact on the Environment

Ants play a crucial role in the environment. They help with soil aeration and the decomposition of organic material, contribute to pollination, and can impact the populations of other insects through the use of their special ant communication system.

Relation with Humans

While ants can be seen as pests, especially when they invade homes in search of food, they can also be beneficial. For example, certain species of ants are used in agriculture to control pests.

Despite their small size, ants are remarkable for their ability to form complex societies, their cooperative behavior, and their impact on ecosystems. They’ve also been the subject of extensive research, as scientists seek to understand their social structures, ant communication methods, and collective problem-solving abilities.

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