How to Speak Ant
Ryan Imrie talks to the animals.
Throughout history humans have been fascinated by the similarity ants show to our own society. We’ve observed their seemingly frantic day-to-day with an anthropomorphic fascination usually reserved for our fellow mammals. So much so that it is even possible to see connections between historic depictions of ants and the social disposition of the time: with French revolutionist Pierre Latrielle seeing them as a republic of inequalities with workers ‘burdened with all the most vexing cares of state’, and American professor William Morton Wheeler describing their organisation as ‘anarchistic socialism’ through the events of the Russian Revolution. Nowadays we know ants are even more similar than we realised. Their societies are hierarchical, show organised division of labour and even their own form of altruism. Some are even capable farmers, so long as you like mushrooms 1.
But as any respectable anthropologist will tell you this level of structure and cooperation would be nigh-on-impossible without the ability to communicate. So do ants have a language? Well yes, but it’s not one you or I are likely to learn very soon. The formic communication mode of choice is smell, and they are uniquely suited to it with over 35 different secretory glands around their bodies. These produce different pheromones, each designed to cause a specific response in the ants that detect it. These can range in purpose from identification to recruitment to sexual attraction (ooh la la!). Some pheromones, such as the ‘alarm’ pheromone, also cause each ant to re-transmit the same pheromone once detected. The chain-reaction this causes can rouse an entire colony in a matter of seconds 2.
What makes the ant language rather unique is that it’s hard-wired into each ant’s DNA. Mutations omitted, each ant is born with the same instinctive knowledge of their entire pungent language [lref id=1]. These little champions of genetic pre-determinism had mass communication sussed long before the first humans had learned to stand upright. So next time you’re doing the washing, hold back that smelly shirt. It may be the key to first contact.