Revealed: How ants talk to each other in their nests

Posted on 4:47 AM by Sameer Shah

Scientists have discovered that ants routinely talk to each other in their nests by rubbing together a natural washboard and plectrum built into their chests.

By inserting tiny miniaturised microphones and speakers into nests, researchers established that queens can issue regal instructions to their workers.

They were able to make the first recordings of queens 'speaking' but also discovered other insects can mimic her instructions to turn worker ants into their slaves.

The Rebel's Large Blue butterfly has learnt to trick ants into feeding and caring for its young.

The young caterpillars exude a scent that mimics the red ants. This dupes the hard-working insects into carry them into their nest.

Once nestled inside the caterpillars beg for food by mimicking the noises made by a queen ant, researchers reported in the journal Science.

The recording revealed these were subtly different from the sounds made by worker ants.

'They appeared to be treating the caterpillars as if they were the holiest of holiest, the pinnacle of power, the queen ant,' study author Jeremy Thomas from Oxford University said.

In times of food shortage, nurse ants have been known to kill their own larvae and feed them to the caterpillars pretending to be queen ants, he added.

In nature, the real ant queen and the caterpillar keep to different parts of the ant colony and would not encounter one another, the report said.

But in an experiment, a butterfly pupa pretending to be an ant queen was placed in a chamber with worker ants and four real ant queens.

The ant queens began to attack and bite the caterpillar, but the workers intervened, biting and stinging their own queens, which they then pulled to a far corner of the chamber while other workers attended the pupa.

The caterpillar spends 11-23 months in the ant society before it metamorphoses into an adult, crawls out of the nest and flies away.

Professor Thomas said, 'This study is the final piece of the jigsaw towards understanding how the Rebel’s Large Blue caterpillars can out-compete their host
ant’s larvae.

'The new findings will play a key part in designing a successful science-led conservation strategy for this fascinating species.'

The research was carried out by an international team from the University of Turin, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the University of Oxford.

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