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Altruistic Ants

Many animals demonstrate altruism. Mammals are particularly well-renowned for this. We've even got stories on this site that show altruism in bees. But now scientists at the University of Sheffield in the UK have demonstrated altruism in ants.

They have discovered that not only do pharaoh ants lay trails of pheromones that lead their nest-mates to food -- the considerate insects also put up chemical "no entry" signs in front of unfruitful foraging routes.

Elva Robinson and her colleagues at the University of Sheffield in the UK observed foraging pharaoh ants. "They seemed to know in advance of a junction in their foraging route that some routes were not worth bothering with," she says. "The ants tended to veer away some 3 centimetres ahead of a fork leading nowhere." To find out what was going on, the researchers allowed the ants to forage on a paper surface. They then cut out the fork of a barren branch from the paper and laid it on another sheet of paper on a branch of a fork which had previously led to food.

They found that 71 per cent of ants chose the control "clean" branch and the remainder did a U-turn back to the nest, suggesting that the ants use a pheromone repellent to mark unrewarding routes.

If this is confirmed, Robinson says a synthetic version of the pheromone might make a good pest control to keep ants away from food cupboards.

See other research on pharaoh ants from the University of Sheffield here

Source: Nature/New Scientist

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