Researchers Observe Sophisticated Tool Use in Ants for the First Time

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Fire Ants Sand Structure

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Researchers have actually observed black imported fire ants utilizing sand to draw liquid food out of containers, when confronted with the danger of drowning. This is the very first time this advanced tool usage has actually been reported in these animals. These findings are released in the British Ecological Society journal Functional Ecology. Credit: Dr. Aiming Zhou and Dr. Jian Chen

Researchers have actually observed black imported fire ants utilizing sand to draw liquid food out of containers when confronted with the danger of drowning. This is the very first time this advanced tool usage has actually been reported in these animals.

A research study released in Functional Ecology has actually revealed for the very first time that a types of ant has the impressive capability to adjust its tool usage. When supplied with little containers of sugar water, black imported fire ants had the ability to drift and feed upon the surface area, however when scientists decreased the surface area stress, the ants began transferring sand grains on the within the container leading out of it. 

“We found the ants used sand to build a structure that could effectively draw sugar water out of the container to then to be collected,” stated Dr. Aiming Zhou, an associate teacher at Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan, China, and a lead author of the research study.

“This exceptional tool making skill not only reduced the drowning risk of ants, but also provided a larger space for them to collect sugar water.”

The sand structures were discovered to be so effective that they might siphon nearly half of the sugar water out of the containers in 5 minutes.

Researchers modified the surface area stress of the sugar water by including surfactant. When surfactant concentrations were over 0.05%, representing substantial drowning danger, ants were observed developing the sand structures to siphon sugar water out of the container. These structures were never ever observed when ants foraged in containers of pure sugar water, suggesting a versatile technique to this unique tool usage. 

The results not just show black imported fire ants’ capability to utilize tools to forage however likewise that they can acknowledge an increased foraging danger and can change their tool usage in reaction to this. 


Researchers have actually observed black imported fire ants utilizing sand to draw liquid food out of containers, when confronted with the danger of drowning. This is the very first time this advanced tool usage has actually been reported in these animals. Credit: Dr. Aiming Zhou and Dr. Jian Chen

Dr. Jian Chen, Research Entomologist at The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Stoneville Mississippi, and another author of the research study, stated: “We knew some ant species are able to use tools, particularly in collecting liquid food; however, we were surprised by such remarkable tool use displayed by black imported fire ants. Our findings suggest that ants and other social insects may have considerable high cognitive capabilities for unique foraging strategies.”

Tool usage is viewed as a sign of cognitive elegance and has actually mainly been observed in primates and some types of birds. But in invertebrates this habits is less well studied and has actually formerly been considered difficult wired and inflexible.

Black imported fire ants, Solenopsis richteri, are belonging to South America however are now an intrusive types in the southern United States after being presented. Their Hydrophobic exoskeletons permit them to drift on water however it’s most likely that they still deal with regular drowning danger in nature due to the fact that of the significance of liquid foods like nectar and honeydew as a carb source. 

In the research study, the scientists computed drowning danger by determining the percentage of drowned ants in 2.5 cm containers of sugar water with varying concentrations of surfactant. The ants had the ability to drift on the surface area of pure sugar water, however the percentage of drowned ants increased substantially with increasing concentrations of surfactant. The scientists then supplied ants with sands of differing grain size to check their choices in developing sand structures when confronted with various drowning dangers. 

Dr. Zhou warns that additional research studies are required in this research study location, stating: “Our experiments are conducted in the laboratory and only limited to the black imported fire ants.” The next actions will be to figure out how extensive this habits remains in other ant types. Dr. Chen includes: “Our study is the first to touch on this interesting topic. We hope our paper will motivate others to do the related investigations.”

Reference: “Ants adjust their tool use strategy in response to foraging risk” by Aiming Zhou, Yuzhe Du and Jian Chen, 7 October 2020, Functional Ecology.
DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.13671