An ant is seen walking over a "Bejuquillo Cafe" (Oxybelis aeneus) snake at Ostional National Wildlife Refuge in Guanacaste province, some 300 kilometers north of San Jose.
Odour receptors among ants is four to five times higher than most insects, researchers have revealed.
The research team, led by Lawrence Zwiebel at Vanderbilt, recently completed the first full map of olfactory system that provides ants with their sense of taste and smell.
They found the industrious insects have genes that make about 400 distinct odorant receptors, special proteins that detect different odors.
By comparison, silk moths have 52, fruit flies have 61, mosquitoes range from 74 to 158 and honeybees have 174.
“The most exciting moment for me was when the analysis came back showing that we had identified more than 400 OR genes, the largest number of any known insect species,” Xiaofan Zhou, the research associate who headed up the characterization process, said.
“It meant that we had successfully taken the first step toward gaining a new level of understanding of the complex social system that has made ants one of the most successful families on the planet,” Zhou said.
People have long been intrigued and inspired by ants’ ability to form highly organized colonies with division of labour, communication between individuals and ability to solve complex problems.
For some time, scientists have also known that chemical communication plays an important role in ant behavior.
“So it’s a reasonable supposition that this dramatic expansion in odour-sensing capability is what allowed ants to develop such a high level of social organization,” Laurence Zwiebel, professor of biological sciences, who directed the new study, said.
The study is published in the journal PLoS Genetics.