Can Ants Change Roles As They Grow Older?
During the past week, scientists have been studying the question of whether ants change roles as they grow older. They found that foraging ants change roles when they are exposed to new conditions. The researchers tagged workers in entire ant colonies and used computers to track them. They found that workers were divided into three specialized groups.
They found that the activity level of a foraging gene, PPFOR, determined the ant’s role. Majors and minors exhibit activity levels that are characteristic of their subcaste. They also found that PPFOR is located in a different part of the brain in majors than in minors.
These results suggest that the foraging gene plays a role in flexibility responses to environmental change. It may also contribute to ants’ ability to adapt to climate change. Species that are warm-active may have to adapt their foraging schedules to accommodate rising temperatures.
The workers of ant colonies switch roles from foraging to cleaning or patrolling when circumstances dictate. They also engage in mutualistic interactions with other ants in their colonies and neighbouring colonies.
In the laboratory, Professor Laurent Keller and colleagues studied six ant colonies. They found that foragers tended to be younger than cleaners. They also found that workers often switched jobs as they aged.
According to their results, ants have great behavioral flexibility. As they age, they switch from young nurses to older foragers. The workers switch roles, without a central direction, as circumstances dictate.