Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Recognizing Dead Ants

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Recognizing Dead Ants

Article excerpt

When an ant dies in an ant nest or near one, its body is quickly picked up by living ants and removed from the colony, thus limiting the risk of colony infection by pathogens from the corpse. The predominant understanding among entomologists--scientists who study insects--is that dead ants release chemicals created by decomposition, such as fatty acids, that signal their death to the colony's living ants.

But now University of California-Riverside (UCR) entomologists studying Argentine ants provide evidence of a different mechanism for how necrophoresis--the removal of dead nestmates from colonies--works. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that all ants, both living and dead, have the "death chemicals" continually, but live ants have them along with other chemicals associated with life--the "life chemicals." When an ant dies, its life chemicals dissipate or are degraded, and only the death chemicals remain.

"It is because the dead ant no longer smells like a living ant that it gets carried to the graveyard, not because its body releases new, unique chemicals after death," says Dong-Hwan Choe, the lead author of the research paper and a graduate student working towards his doctoral degree with Michael Rust, a professor of entomology at UCR.

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Choe explains that the results resolve a conundrum long-standing in animal behavior and correct a misinterpretation of previous results that has become both popular and widespread in literature. …

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