Many of us are familiar with the children’s counting song, “The ants go marching one by one…” Scientists have now discovered that at least some species of ants do appear to be counting their steps when they go marching out in search of food.
After training some desert ants to look for food in a specific location, scientists investigated how the ants could consistently locate the same source of food with seeming ease. It is known that ants will leave scent markers to guide their nest mates back to a food source. This is a rather laborious process, however, and slows the ants down.
The scientists glued extensions on the legs of some ants, lengthening their strides. When these stilt-walking ants were released to search for food, they started out in the right direction, but overshot the food source every time. Scientists then cut the legs off other ants at the first joint, shortening their stride. Again the ants were released to search for food. This time they stopped short of the food source. The scientists concluded the scout probably lays a scent trail initially, but then the workers memorize the number of steps needed to arrive at the food. This is surprising evidence of relatively complicated communication from such a tiny creature.
Ants have a variety of ways to tell each other not only of food, but also warn the colony of danger. As mentioned above, scents, or pheromones, are an integral part of ant communication. Weaver ants have two scent glands in their abdomens and four more in their heads. They can release one or more of these chemicals at a time to convey a variety of messages. Entomologists estimate they can employ between 10 and 20 chemical “phrases” or “words” to communicate with their nest mates. These pheromone messages may be left on a hard surface or released into the air. Weaver ants also appear to use their feces to mark their territory. It is suspected there are scent components at work here, too.
A majority of species also communicate with sound. They can produce a high pitched squeak by rubbing a thin scraper located on their waist against a series of tiny parallel ridges on the adjacent abdomen. The signal is barely audible to humans. The squeaking is used for a variety of messages. Ironically, the ants are not influenced by the audible sound of the signal, but rather by the portion of the vibrations that come to them through the soil.
Ants have amazingly complicated communication systems. Are these the product of random chance, or complex by design? We don’t have to guess; God has already told us “look to the ant” (Prov. 6) for instruction. We can only add, “Hurrah! Hurrah!”
Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of Think and Believe.