Ant biology: February 2011 Archives

Dear AntAsk,

I am in my final year of Dutch Preparotory University Edication and I am writing a script about the senses of the Lasius niger. I am not able to find the answer to the following question: What kind of chemical receptors does the Lasius niger have in his antennae? What kind of chemical substances can they smell?

Laura Carrière

Dear Laura,
Very little is known about the chemical receptors of Lasius in particular, but more is known about ants in general (most of the research has been done in carpenter ants (Camponotus) and wood ants (Formica), more recently also in leafcutting ants (Atta). It is likely that Lasius species are similar to Camponotus or Formica species regarding their chemosensory receptors. I would assume that they differ more in the number of sensilla than in the actual chemical compounds that they can perceive.

Ants have many receptors for different odorants (scents) in their antennae, but they also have receptors for sugar and other substances that you would call tastants in humans (substances that elicit a taste feeling, like sweet, sour, bitter or salty). In addition, ants can perceive carbon dioxide, humidity, temperature as well as touch with their antennae.

The majority of receptors on an ant antenna are odor receptors, ant ants have very high numbers of different odor receptors, so they can discriminate many different odors, perhaps more than any other insect that has been studied in this respect. So you could say that ants are the smell experts among the insects.

The biological reason for this is that ant workers mainly live on the ground and rely heavily on their sense of smell, whereas most other insects can fly and depend more on vision. You might say that ants sniff their way around and their 'view' of the world is probably mainly based on smells (unlike humans - we are mostly visual).

Another reason is that ants use many different kinds of pheromones - many more than other insects (you may consider reading more about pheromones). These pheromones are also perceived by odor receptors on the ants' antennae, just like 'ordinary' odors. Other pheromones sit directly on the cuticle of ants and they "taste" them when they touch each other with their antennae. While you know other people mainly by the way they look, ants know how their nest-mates 'taste' or smell. Ant brains are well equipped to process all this chemosensory information, but they do not process much visual information (except in some species with particularly large eyes).

Good luck with your essay on Lasius niger!

Wulfila Gronenberg (Guest Expert) & the AntAsk Team

Dear AntAsk
It seems like ants would be a great model organism for the study of the genetics of social behavior. Are there any efforts in this field, and if so what species of the ones currently being sequenced are regarded as the most likely to be used for these purposes?

Dear Mikel,

You are correct that ants are certainly a good group to study questions regarding the genetics of social behavior (among many other questions). There is an effort to sequence ant genomes and as of today (February 2011) there are six ant genomes available (with several others in the pipeline). The six ant genomes that have been sequenced to date are:

- Atta cephalotes
- Camponotus floridanus
- Harpegnathos saltator
- Linepithema humile
- Pogonomyrmex barbatus
- Solenopsis invitca

For more information and links to the genomic sequences, please visit

Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

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