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Ant Pupae Signal Status with Sound

Developing ants cannot yet waft pheromones, but have been discovered to be able to produce distinctive calls to claim their social status within the colony. Marissa Fessenden reports

Adult ants communicate with pheromones, touch and even sound. Now, researchers have discovered that developing ants, called pupae, have their own distinctive calls, which identify their social status within the colony. The finding is in the journal Current Biology. [Luca P. Casacci et al., Ant pupae employ acoustics to communicate social status in their colony's hierarchy]

Ants rasp and chirp by scraping a spike on their waist against a ridged section of their abdomen. But developing larvae are silent. So ants recognize them by chemical cues, size, shape, even squishiness. But the teenage versions of ants—the pupae—have hard outer shells that lack pheromones.

However, pupae do have fully formed sound organs. The researchers thus recorded audio from the pupae and discovered clicking noises. The pulses' frequency and intensity are more like the adult workers' stridulations than the queen ant's song.

The pupae’s snaps are brief because their cases keep them from moving much. Still, the noise appears to work: when the researchers disturbed the nest, adult ants rescued noisy pupae before silent larvae. For ants, as for people, it pays to be the squeaky wheel.

—Marissa Fessenden

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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