Dogs use their keen sense of smell to help us find everything from drugs to cancer. Chimpanzees use tools to crack open nuts for food. But how smart is the tiny ant? As it turns out, these insects are also very clever. The following examples are just a few ways ants show their intelligence.

Using Tools to Get Food

Image via Flickr by CH.Tseng

A research team from the University of Szeged in Hungary put out a container of diluted honey and small tools ants would find in the wild, including soil grains, pine needles, and twigs, as well as artificial tools such as paper and sponge. Then they released two species of ants to see how they collected the food. One species immediately settled on using the soil grains and sponge to soak up the honey, even tearing the sponge into more manageable pieces. The other species tested each tool before deciding the sponge and paper were most efficient.

Optimizing the Best Path Between Food and Nest

When ants first head out from the nest to search for food, it’s a random and chaotic scene. Once one ant finds some food, it will take a small piece to the nest and leave a trail of pheromones to mark the way back to the food. However, these pheromones evaporate quickly, so the first few trips other ants make aren’t very streamlined. They’ll organize their search and eventually find the shortest and best path. This search leaves more and more pheromones behind, creating a precise route for every ant to follow.

Forming a Giant Raft to Survive Floods

When massive floods swamp the land, fire ant colonies can survive by forming a giant raft with their own bodies. In a process that can take less than two minutes to complete, worker ants will hook mouths and legs together to form a raft. The ants have fine hair on their bodies that trap enough air to keep the raft afloat. They place the queen and larvae in the center of the raft where it’s safest and float along until they reach dry land. They can actually survive several weeks as this makeshift raft.

Learning As They Age

Individual ants have different skill levels when it comes to finding food. Like humans, older ants use their time to gain more experience and knowledge about the world outside their nest. This means it’s easier for them to look for food, even though they tire faster than younger ants. Younger ants essentially learn on the job and get better over time.

Making Antibiotics to Protect the Nest

Wood ants live in large colonies that number in the hundreds of thousands. This could make them susceptible to widespread epidemics such as disease, yet they seem to avoid this by creating their own antibiotic cocktail. Scientists have observed these ants making an antibiotic using poison from their bodies and tree resin to protect the nest from deadly fungi and diseases.

From using tools to making their own medicine, we’re starting to see that the minuscule ant is actually a lot smarter than we thought.