Ants call for emergency backup with chemical trail

See the ants' "chemical nets" dragging nestmates towards the food item

Related Stories

Brazilian "big-headed" ants use chemical trails to drag others into helping them carry food, a study shows.

Researchers found that when an ant discovered food that was too large to carry, it immediately set off for the nest, laying a pungent chemical trail.

This almost instantly caused hundreds of other ants to rush in and help drag back the oversized snack.

The team thinks the species' "chemical breadcrumb trail" is the fastest and most accurate ever recorded.

The findings from this study are reported in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology.

To me, to you

Tiny, organised societies

Big-headed ants carrying a stingless bee (c) Tomer Czaczkes

Only ants and humans are able to "organise themselves into teams" to lift heavy objects.

Although many ant species use chemical trails to organise themselves into food-collecting groups, the big-headed ant has an "extreme" chemical enlisting strategy, says the University of Sussex team.

Tomer Czaczkes, the scientist who led the study - and who filmed the ants at work in the forests of Brazil - said that the insects were "incredibly accurate" when it came to following the trail laid down by a fellow forager.

"When an ant finds something delicious," he said, "she has to lay a trail really quickly, because competition is fierce.

"The pheromone trail starts working immediately. Any ants caught in its net are funnelled towards the food item."

In their experiments, Dr Czaczkes and his colleagues left food items outside an ants' nest and filmed the reaction.

When one "scout ant" found the food, it would try to move it, give up and return to the nest, laying the pheromone trail on its way back.

Within two seconds, other ants would emerge from the nest and start following the scent to the food item.

This strong-smelling trail decays quickly, lasting just six minutes. This is a crucial part of its purpose, as it does not lure ants from the nest pointlessly, after a food has gone.

"That's important, because for an ant, it's dangerous to be out of the nest," said Dr Czaczkes.

But because the trail also intercepted ants that were already outside the nest - dragging them towards the food item, the tiny, industrious insects were able to retrieve food up to 8m from their nest.

Ants carrying a cockroach (c) Tomer Czaczkes Helping heads: The Brazilian big-headed ants are some of the fastest heavy-lifting teams on earth

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More from nature

  • Cardinal fish and ostracodFish filmed spitting 'fireworks'

    Film crew captures ostracods' spectacular defensive lightshow that makes predatory fish spit them out.

  • Arapaima'Locally extinct'

    A giant fish which used to dominate the Amazon river is now absent in many areas

  • DragonflyRapid reactions

    Dragonfly's super quick reactions recorded in slow motion by BBC film-makers

  • Wingless adult male of the midge Belgica antarcticaExtreme survivor

    Antarctic midge's small genome may be an adaptation to its extreme environment

  • Myotis midastactus specimen (previously identified as Myotis simus)Golden discovery

    A bat from Bolivia is described as a new species by scientists

  • Dinosaurs 'shrank' to become birds

    Huge meat-eating, land-living dinosaurs evolved into birds by constantly shrinking for over 50 million years, new research shows.

  • Would we starve without bees?

    Honey bees are under threat, and as pollination significantly contributes to the food we eat, what would we do without them?

  • Eggshells may act like 'sunblock'

    Birds' eggs show adaptations in pigment concentration and thickness to allow the right amount of sun for embryos, scientists say.

  • Female shrimps are more aggressive

    Female snapping shrimps are more aggressive than males when defending their territories despite their smaller claw size, a study shows.

BBC iWonder

  • Honey bee close-upInsect intelligence

    Are honey bees as smart as your sat nav?

  • Tyrannosaurus rex skull (c) Mark Williamson / Science Photo LibraryDinosaur dynasty

    One group of dinosaurs survived and their descendants can be seen all around us today

  • Brown rat cluse upRise of the rodent

    Reports of giant, 'super rats' are filling the headlines. But why are we being overrun by rats?

  • Cuckoo portraitHoliday hotspot

    What makes the UK such an attractive destination for visiting wildlife?

Awesome! And there's nothing common about such beauty.

Elaine Bernon on Facebook comments on the trio of common blue butterflies in our Photo of the Day.

Things To Do


More Nature Activities >

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.