Ants have learned to use sand for tool activities

Ants have learned to use sand for tool activities
Ants have learned to use sand for tool activities

Scientists have found that ants are able to build structures from sand to extract liquid food. In the last experiment, they created something like a siphon and were able to safely draw up to half of the sugar solution from the container, on the surface of which they could not hold on without additional tools.

Ants during the experiment / © Aiming Zhou et al. / Functional Ecology, 2020

The study was conducted by a team from Huazhong Agricultural University in China. Scientists took working black fire ants, which often use sand for food - usually as an absorbent - and tested how the insects would use it in the laboratory. The results of the study are published in the journal Functional Ecology.

Plastic bottle caps were used in the experiment. First, a 15% sugar solution was poured into them - the ants swam freely in it and fed directly from the container. Then polysorbate-80 was added to the syrup, a substance that reduced the surface tension of the liquid. In such a solution, the ants usually drowned or slowly and with difficulty got out.

At the next stage, scientists poured an ordinary sugar solution and syrup with the addition of polysorbate-80 into different caps and allowed whole colonies of insects to approach them. Next to each container, scientists poured some sand. Ants used it when they saw the danger of drowning: they transferred grains of sand to the lids and began to build on their inner walls something like siphons that absorbed liquid. Thus, the insects managed to get almost half of the food from the "dangerous" containers within five minutes.

“This exceptional toolmaking skill reduced the risk of drowning and gave the ants more room to collect food,” said Dr. Aim Zhou, associate professor at Huazhong Agricultural University.

The results of the study showed that black fire ants are able to use improvised means to get food. In addition, they can assess how dangerous specific conditions are and adjust their behavior based on them. The scientists added that this is the first documented case of construction of siphon structures by animals.


According to Dr. Zhou, more research is needed in this area, because so far the experiments are carried out only in laboratories and exclusively with the participation of black fire ants, which limits scientists. In the future, his team plans to determine if other ant species are capable of using tools and creating complex designs.

Popular by topic