Ant Communications



On my walks I see ants of many sizes. My question is about medium size fast moving ants. As they race about in a line (or roughly a broad line), some going and some coming, some meet head on and stop to either check something or communicate. They stop for a split second or sometimes a second or two. Any idea why?
John McAllister


Dear John:

As always around here, we appreciate your interest in ants. Lacking locality information or more specific description of the ants, it would be impossible to identify the species you observed, but some general principles of ant behavior will certainly apply to your question.
Ants may form relatively heavily traveled trails, with individuals traveling in both directions for a couple of reasons. One is that they have what is called a foraging "trunk" trail, with hungry outbound foragers heading away from the nest to the food gathering areas beyond, and food-bearing returning individuals heading home. Similar trails may be formed among the various nests of ants that live in large, multi-nest (polydomous) colonies, and it is along such trails that the family ties among the different nests are maintained.
You more or less answered your own question about why the ants stop when they meet head-on, with the phrase "either check something or communicate". One thing they check is that the ant they encounter is a member of their own colony, recognized by odor, just as dogs recognize humans and other dogs individually. Ants are strongly territorial and typically don't tolerate members of other colonies intruding on their space. Another thing, they might be checking is if the oncoming ant has any food to offer. Commonly, if a returning forager has found a particularly good source of food, it may communicate to the other ant through physical and chemical (pheromone) signals that it should carry on in the direction it is going to find that food.

James C. Trager & the AntAsk Team

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