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Poison-Taster Ants Help Save Colonies

 

Hoping to combat invading ants with poison? It turns out ants have sophisticated group strategies to avoiding destruction.

By Jennifer Viegas | Fri Jan 8, 2010 07:12 AM ET
news.discovery.com
ants

Researchers marked ants, shown here, to analyze how they combat famine and poisoning.
Thomas Klimek

On cold, damp days, starving ants often march into homes seeking food, and some homeowners put out poison to try and stop them. But ants have evolved three successful ways to combat both poisonings and famine, including sacrificing some ants as poison tasters.

The findings, accepted for publication in the journal Animal Behavior, may apply to humans -- and not just those with ant invasions -- because they show how food can be distributed quickly after a famine, while also guarding against sickness, or even death, from poison.

Ants "have evolved to great ecological success over millions of years and hence are likely to have found a solution," lead author Ana Sendova-Franks told Discovery News, adding that it's also "relatively easy to study experimentally the link between two levels of organization: the individual and the system." 

Sendova-Franks, an associate professor of biometry and animal behavior at the University of the West of England, and her team collected four Temnothorax albipennis colonies in Dorset and housed them in man-made nests.

The researchers did not give the ants food or water for 48 hours, which is actually a mild deprivation representing "the normal level of hunger of ant colonies in the field," Sendova-Franks said. Some colonies can survive up to eight months of starvation. Before and after providing food on the third day, the scientists tracked each individual worker ant.  

During famine, some worker ants that normally were active outside of the colony stayed put, retaining food and getting new food from foragers. When other ants then needed a boost, the stay-at-home ants shared their food using mouth-to-mouth regurgitation.

These "living silos are a completely new discovery," according to Sendova-Franks.

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