Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Perfume Prevents Ant Wars

Surrounding odours can affect the ability of ants to distinguish friend from foe, a University of Melbourne study has found.

Prof Mark Elgar from the Department of Zoology placed ants from the same and different colonies in perfume-scented containers, and then observed their greeting and aggressive behaviours.

“Ants brush each others’ antennae, which helps them detect chemical signals that reveal whether the other ant is friend or foe,” Elgar said. “When ants were in a haze of perfume, they brushed their antennae more frequently, but they weren’t necessarily more or less aggressive.

“Our results show that perfume obscures signal recognition. These odours act as a background noise in much the same way as it’s more difficult to hear someone speaking at a rock concert.

“So background noise is an important factor in influencing the evolution of chemical communication because it requires a precise signal that can be detected reliability against the background noise.

“Perhaps its no surprise that worker ants engaging in territorial disputes with adjacent colonies prefer locations with less plants, and thus perhaps low levels of olfactory interference,” Elgar said.

The study was published in Austral Entomology.