Ants Counting Their Step

Posted on November 30, 2009  Comments (6)

Ants That Count!

Most ants get around by leaving smell trails on the forest floor that show other ants how to get home or to food. They squeeze the glands that cover their bodies; those glands release a scent, and the scents in combination create trails the other ants can follow.

That works in the forest, but it doesn’t work in a desert. Deserts are sandy and when the wind blows, smells scatter.

It’s already known that ants use celestial clues to establish the general direction home, but how do they know exactly the number of steps to take that will lead them right to the entrance of their nest?

Wolf and Whittlinger trained a bunch of ants to walk across a patch of desert to some food. When the ants began eating, the scientists trapped them and divided them into three groups. They left the first group alone. With the second group, they used superglue to attach pre-cut pig bristles to each of their six legs, essentially putting them on stilts.

The regular ants walked right to the nest and went inside. The ants on stilts walked right past the nest, stopped and looked around for their home…

I posted about this back in 2006: Ants on Stilts for Science, but the webcast by NPR is worth a new post.

Related: E.O. Wilson: Lord of the AntsHuge Ant Nestposts showing the scientific method of learning in action

6 Responses to “Ants Counting Their Step”

  1. Oliver
    November 30th, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

    It make sense that ants counts their steps. Even us humans uses steps to measure length sometimes when we don’t have the measurement tools.

  2. andi
    December 3rd, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    I really enjoyed Ants on Stilts for Science… nice followup!

  3. Anonymous
    December 15th, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    Ants continue to amaze me, I can’t figure out how they pack everything in their little brains. I saw a Nat. Geo. show with them systematically attacking a termite mound. Pretty coordinated, when they started losing the battle they all were given a retreat signal. I don’t know how they all new to retreat? The termites were smart too, they walled in their queen for safety when the attack started… and they have tiny little heads?

  4. Joseph Condron
    December 15th, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    That was an entertaining and informative video. Engineering geniuses, farmers and now brilliant counters.

    It just raises one slight question. Ants do not necessarily always march in straight lines. What happens if they go take a more circular route?

    Here is an article that has more interesting ant insights and a video about their complex homes.

  5. Anonymous
    February 10th, 2010 @ 6:02 am

    Very Interesting article. It surprised ants are the very small creatures but having a complete network and system to live their lives.

  6. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Ants, Ants, Ants
    August 20th, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

    [...] Ants Counting Their Steps – E.O. Wilson: Lord of the Ants – Symbiotic relationship between ants and bacteria [...]

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