Magazine article Science News

Need Soldier Ants; Just Tell the Nursemaid

Magazine article Science News

Need Soldier Ants; Just Tell the Nursemaid

Article excerpt

Any military leader who has tried to recruit soldiers will envy the common ant Pheidole pallidula.

When these ants sense a possible threat, they increase the ratio of soldiers to workers in their colonies, report Luc Passera of Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France, and his colleagues.

Passera's team tested almost 40 large colonies of P. pallidula from southern France. The scientists removed all of the soldiers and decreased the number of workers to 1,100 in each colony.

The team then allowed worker ants from two colonies at a time to walk through a tunnel in search of a dinner of honey and mealworms. The tunnel was divided to keep the ants from different colonies apart. In some experiments, the partition was made of wire mesh, through which the ants poked their antennae and legs at each other. In other experiments, a plastic sheet kept the ants unaware of each others' presence.

In nature, ants from different colonies commonly pass each other when foraging and discriminate easily between foreigners and members of their group. Over 7 weeks, the colonies whose workers traveled in the tunnel divided by mesh produced about twice as many soldiers, and fewer workers, as the other colonies, Passera and his colleagues report in the Feb. 15 Nature. Whether an ant larva grows into a worker or a soldier appears to depend on what it's fed, studies by other researchers indicate. Workers in the tunnel with the mesh alerted the larvae's nursemaids to the presence of foreigners, speculates coauthor Laurent Keller of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. …

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