Ants are well known for their communal behaviors, such as building complex nest tunnels and gathering food for their colony. A surprising new study from the University of Fribourg has discovered yet another way that ants work together – passing fluids from mouth to mouth to create a colony-wide metabolism.
While passing fluids from mouth to mouth was already recognized as common behavior among ants, the purpose of it was unclear. The results of the new study suggest that ants are behaving similarly to how organisms thrive on communal metabolisms.
“Individual ants have two stomachs – one for digesting their own food and another one that comes first, a ‘social stomach’ for storing fluids that they share with other ants in their colony. These fluid exchanges allow ants to share food and other important proteins that the ants themselves produce,” explained senior author Adria LeBoeuf.
“To help us understand why ants share these fluids, we explored whether the proteins they exchange are linked to an individual’s role in the colony or the colony’s life-cycle,” added study lead author Sanja Hakala.
The researchers analyzed the proteins found within the ‘social stomachs’ of individual ants, comparing the contents between forager ants and nurse ants that care for the youth of the colony. The age of each colony was also investigated.
Nurse ants were discovered to have more anti-aging proteins in their social stomachs, suggesting that these proteins are passed on through mouth-to-mouth transfer to ensure the survival of offspring.
“These findings show that some colony members can do metabolic labour for the benefit of others,” said Hakala.
Furthermore, it was also discovered that ants found in mature colonies had the most sufficient nutrient storage proteins for survival and growth, as opposed to the insufficiencies of newly founded colonies.
However, more studies will be necessary if scientists are going to understand the purpose of each shared protein within a colony.
“It is hard to measure how metabolic work is shared between cells,” explained LeBoeuf. “Here, the ants pass things around in a way that we can easily access what they are sharing. Having a better understanding of how ants share metabolic labor may help us learn more about the ways that other creatures, like humans, distribute metabolic tasks between different tissues or different cells in their bodies.”
The study is published in the journal eLife.