Ants are opportunistic feeders who will eat anything that can serve as a food source, whether living or dead. Omnivorous in nature, ants have a wide range of things that they can eat: from vegetables to meat to honey.
Since they are predatory, ants are also known to attack other insects and small animals, kill them and feed on them. On top of that, ants are scavengers and will not miss the opportunity to feed on carcasses. That is why ants are very likely to be seen around or near a dead insect or animal.
How Do Ants Find Dead Animals?
Ants locate dead animals the same way they find their other foods: through their keen sense of smell.
The ability of ants to smell food is four to five times better than that of other insects, as they have relatively more odor receptors on their antennae.
Therefore, ants can detect the presence of food from quite a distance. Dead animals are, for a fact, easier to find as they produce a distinct smell when they are decomposing. For this reason, it is safe to assume that dead animals are easier to detect than other types of foods that ants consume.
The responsibility of finding food for the colonies is placed on worker ants, who forage randomly. When they come across the dead meat, they alert other worker ants and lead them to the source of food using pheromone, a chemical they use to communicate with each other. The worker ants then work in synergy to bring the food back to the colony.
Why Do Ants Eat Dead Insects?
Ants are predators that kill and eat other insects for their nutritional value. Most insects, such as termites, are rich in proteins, one of the most important nutrients for ants. Others such as cockroaches and flies contain generous amounts of fat, which is also important in an ant’s diet.
If you killed a cockroach and left its body in the open, you will soon observe a swarm of ants flocking on it. Also, if you give it enough time, the ants will ferry away the cockroach’s body.
Ants are known to be the biggest termite predators. This is for two main reasons: the two insects are territorial enemies, and termites are very nutritious. Thus, ants tend to attack and kill termites, after which they carry the dead insects back to their nests to be eaten by the queen and the rest of the colony.
It is a well-known fact that ants are very protective of aphids because they produce honeydew, which is the ultimate favorite food for ants. In their determination to protect, ants usually fight and kill insects that prey on aphids. Afterward, they carry these dead insects to their nests and feed on them.
Do Ants Eat Their Dead?
Normally, ants do not eat their dead. Ants have an organized system on how to treat their dead. Just like other insect colonies such as termites, ants practice necrophoresis.
This means that ants will remove corpses of deceased ants from the nest and dump them in a designated place close by. The removal is so that the dead ants do not spread infections to the queen.
However, it is a different story when ants are hit by a food shortage. In a scenario where food is scarce, ants are likely to turn cannibalistic and feed on their dead. An instance is found in the 2013 report by Polish scientists that showed that a colony of wood ants that had been closed off from the outside world was surviving by feeding on their dead.
Additionally, there are specific ant species that attack, kill and eat other species of ants. A good example is the army ants. While they do not feed on each other, army ants are notorious for causing havoc in the colonies of other ants and eating them.
How Do Ants Know If an Animal Is Dead?
It is not clearly established that ants can tell if an animal is dead. As they are opportunistic hunters, ants will feast on anything that will fall on their paths, and it would not matter if it dead or alive, provided it is helpless.
If, say, a sick dog was left somewhere close to an anthill, ants would seize the opportunity and gnaw at the dog until it dies. Then, they would continue feeding on it until they have acquired all the nutrients. Therefore, the most fitting answer to this is that ants will feed on any animal that is helpless and available to them, regardless of whether the animal is alive or dead.
However, ants can tell when another ant is dead. When an ant is dying, it releases a chemical known as oleic acid, which other ants will immediately detect. The live ants will immediately rush to it and carry it away, not to eat it, but to bury it or dump it at a designated dumping site.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Do ants eat dead human bodies?
Ants eat whatever has nutritional value to them. Besides, they are known to bite humans whenever we bump into each other. So, the answer is yes. Ants do eat dead human bodies as well as the carcasses of dead animals. They do not discriminate.
- Why do dead ants attract other ants?
Mostly, dead ants attract other ants because they release a chemical that alerts the other ants that it is dead. Since ants have a superb sense of smell, they detect this chemical very fast and come to carry their carcass.
Even though one may think they carry their dead to eat them, this is not the case as they are known to bury their dead. This is with the exception of army ants, who are cannibalistic.
- Why do ants feed on dead animals?
Ants are opportunistic hunters, so they eat whatever is made available to them. Dead animals contain proteins, fats, and minerals that ants are in need of.
Ants are indiscriminate feeders and will eat anything that has any nutritional value, including dead animals. Ants also feed on other dead insects such as termites, cockroaches, and ants because of their protein content. On very rare occasions, ants also feed on other dead ants in their colonies.
Joe is a freelance writer for FaunaFacts. Joe has written extensively about snakes for the site, but also contributes content about a range of animals.