What Does an Ant Sound Like?

  • Posted 10.27.16
  • NOVA

Ant language sounds wacky—and can be hacked. Learn more in this episode of Gross Science.

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Running Time: 03:15

Transcript

What Does an Ant Sound Like?

Posted: October 27, 2016

Ant colonies are like high security bank vaults. To get in, you need the right access codes. Usually, those come in the form of chemical cues, which let the resident ants know you belong. But one parasitic beetle has cracked a secret cipher to gain entry to the nest. It’s learned how to speak the ants’ language. And that language sounds a little something like this.

I’m Anna Rothschild, and this is Gross Science.

As you might remember from movies like Ant Man, ants usually communicate using chemical signals, like pheromones. But while that’s a powerful way to convey important information, it’s not the only way ants talk. Many ants chirp to each other by rubbing two hard parts of their abdomens together. Different species can use these scraping sounds for things like getting organized, communicating with mates, and calling for help. In fact, the Mediterranean ant species Pheidole pallidula has three kinds of calls: workers, soldiers, and queens each make their own distinct sound.

Now, Pheidole pallidula has a nemesis named Paussus favieri. It’s a beetle that can only live inside the ant’s nests. To get inside, the beetles use chemicals on the outsides of their bodies to blend in with the ants. But, for an all-access pass to the entire nest, scientists think they also mimic the ants’ sounds.

The beetles also scrape their abdomens to make chirps that match the calls of ant workers, soldiers, or queens. Here’s an example. Now, that call might sound pretty different to us than the ant calls do… but it’s close enough to fool the ants.

And that works out really well for the beetles. You see, ants normally attack any intruder in their nest. But, these beetles have almost free range, even interacting with the queen herself. And the ants don’t just ignore the beetles—they’ll actually lick them in a way that resembles their own grooming behavior.

Tragically, the ants still don’t object when the beetles start eating them. Sometimes the beetles prey on adult ants, but they especially like younger ones. A beetle uses its straw-like jaws to pierce the abdomen of an ant larva, and then carries the larva around like a slurpee, drinking its blood and soft tissues.

This “beetle in ants clothing” is just one example of what’s called “aggressive mimicry” in nature—where a predator or parasite resembles a more harmless organism to avoid detection from prey. It’s actually a pretty ingenious solution. Ant slurpee, anyone? Ew.

Credits

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Host, Producer, Editor
Anna Rothschild
Writer, Researcher
Elizabeth Preston
Animator, Illustrator
Mark Gartsbeyn, Anna Rothschild
Additional Help
Janet DiFilippo
Camera, Sound
Gil Kaplan
Easy Life B
Music Provided by APM
Original Footage
©WGBH Educational Foundation 2016

FOOTAGE AND STILLS

Ant Licking Video & Beetle with Queen
©2012 Emanuela Maurizi et al.
Additional Images of Ants
Courtesy Dr. Andrea Di Giulio
Ant-Man Gif
Ant-Man (2015) Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

SFX

Cockroaches
Freesound/StateAardvark­
(used with permission from author)
Squeak Pack/squeak_10
Freesound/Corsica_S
Ant Sounds
©2015 Di Giulio et al.
Wink
Freesound/Bennychico11
Cough Cough Sniff Sniff
Freesound/Harrypeeks
Sipping A Juice Box
Freesound/Trundlefly
Produced by WGBH for PBS Digital Studios

POSTER IMAGE

Ant
Courtesy Dr. Andrea Di Giulio

Sources

Want more info?

Paper on Beetles Mimicking Ant Sounds:
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0130541
Di Giulio A, Maurizi E, Barbero F, Sala M, Fattorini S, Balletto E, et al. (2015) The Pied Piper: A Parasitic Beetle’s Melodies Modulate Ant Behaviours. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0130541.

Paper on Paussus favieri Behavior:
https://www.hindawi.com/journals/psyche/2012/940315/
Emanuela Maurizi, Simone Fattorini, Wendy Moore, and Andrea Di Giulio, “Behavior of Paussus favieri(Coleoptera, Carabidae, Paussini): A Myrmecophilous Beetle Associated with Pheidole pallidula (Hymenoptera, Formicidae),” Psyche, vol. 2012, Article ID 940315, 9 pages, 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/940315

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