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Do Ants Have Brains? (Ant Cognition Explained)

Ants have well-functioning brains and they are considered to be one of the smartest insects. Ant brains contain between 200,000 and 250,000 neurons that control their day to day activities. By comparison, human brains have around 86 billion neurons.

ant

Ant colonies function more as a collective intelligence where each and every member is responsible for contributing to the existence and survival of the colony as a whole.

Collective intelligence is nothing but the intelligence or information obtained from each and every member of the group as a whole and then taking actions based on that information. It is something which cannot be obtained on an individual basis.

Let’s take a deeper and closer look at this fascinating topic.

How Do Ant Brains Work?

Ant brains function more like singular neurons of the human brain and the collective intelligence of the whole colony acts as one big highly functioning brain.

There is no one particular lead ant which is in charge of the whole colony but still all the major day to day decisions within the ant colony are taken in unison and each and every ant knows their role.

The queen is just there to lay eggs, it doesn’t pass on any orders regarding anything within the ant colony.

This is why as per Stanford scientists, the ant colonies are analogous to the human brain where each neuron only performs simplistic tasks but it is the action of these small neurons that allows the whole brain to function properly. So it’s like none of the neurons can think on their own but the brain can think on its own.

Ant colony on a leaf
A colony of ants form a complex hivemind or neural network, like a pseudo-brain that can make complex decisions on its own without the individual ants understanding the part they play.

Related Article: How Do Ants Smell Without Noses?

Ant Brain vs Human Brain

PropertyAnt BrainHuman Brain
Importance to OrganismIndependently functioning nervous system allows them to function for a short while even if their brain gets damaged.The brain controls every neural function of the human body so a human can’t function without a brain.
Number of Neurons200,000 to 250,000 neurons86 billion neurons
ProtectionHard exoskeleton protects the whole body, including the brain.The brain is protected by the skull and the meninges, which is a 3 layered tissue covering between the skull and the brain.
FunctionAnts brains are fairly limited and lack the capability for complex thoughts or emotions.Human brains are capable of abstract thinking, self-awareness, and complex thoughts and emotions.

What Are Ant Brains Like?

The ant brain is located in the ant head and consist of three main lobes:

1. Protocerebrum

The protocerebrum is responsible for participating in the visionary functions of the ant.

Related Article: How Many Legs Does Ants Have?

2. Deutocerebrum

The deutocerebrum supplies nerves to the antennas and is responsible for detecting the tactile sensations, environmental condition changes, and the proper functioning of the odor picking ability of the ants.

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3. Tritocerebrum

The Tritocerebrum is a general-purpose part of the ant brain that helps in maintaining a proper and continuous supply of sensory information between the other two parts of the brain.

It also helps in connecting the ant brain to the stomodaeal nervous system, which is responsible for the independent functioning of the neural network spanning all across the ant body.

Ants collecting food
Ants’ brains are complex enough to allow them to collect food and survive, but not complex enough for them to feel emotions or form complex thoughts.

Related Article: Are Ants Producers, Decomposers or Consumers?

Can Ants get Brain Damage?

Ants can not suffer from concussions or brain damage like humans do, since ant brains are so limited in function that they either work, or they don’t.

They have sensory hairs present on the exoskeleton that are directly connected with their nervous system. This helps them to perceive any kind of change in the environment, in communicating with other ants, detecting sound, and in loads of other stuff.

Hence when they get injured they won’t suffer like mammals as their brain is not that developed which is why they do not possess any emotions.

This is also the exact reason they cannot have any painful sensations in their body as they lack pain receptors. They may feel that a part of their body is damaged and can feel a bit of irritation but they just aren’t developed enough biologically to feel any pain.

However, unlike humans, they have got an independently functioning nervous system, which means that even if its brain is severely injured, it can still live for quite some time and move around as the rest of the nervous system will keep on functioning normally until the ant dies from the damage and microbial infection.

Dead ant
Ants can carry on living for some time, even if their brain becomes damaged

Read Also: Do Ants Lay Eggs?

Can Ants Regrow Their Brains?

Some studies have shown that within a particular species of ants (Harpegnathos saltator) some of the female ants in the colony can shrink and then again regrow their brain. This is something not common to all ant species.

Scientists found that whenever the queen ant from a colony of Harpegnathos saltator dies, a competition breaks out among some of the female worker ants to become the next queen, during which their brain shrinks and their ovaries enlarge.

This competition can go on for multiple weeks and at the end of the fight, the handful of the winning contestants will have developed a large ovary and they would have lost about a fifth of their brain size in the process!

They also go through other hormonal changes that decrease their venom production and in short prepare their body for the optimal production of eggs.

The ones that fail to become the queen yet manage to survive the competition of becoming the queen, revert back to their daily life as worker ants. However, when they go back to their older life their brain size regrows back to its original size.

It is assumed that the brain size decreases in them to conserve an extra bit of energy which then can be attributed to laying eggs.

This is just like the instance where, the newly fertilized queen ants shed off their wings before starting a colony, to use the energy of the flight muscles in laying eggs.

This is the first instance where an insect was found to lose and then regenerate a part of its brain and this is no doubt a remarkable discovery as this can further pave the way for newer studies and outcomes on brain plasticity which then can be used for better treatment of neural damage in humans.

Ant Head
Harpegnathos saltator ants have been known to be able to shrink and regrow their brain

Read Also: Are Ants Wise?

What Fungus Takes Over Ant Brains?

The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus takes over the ant brains and turns them into living zombies. The fungus disperses its spores in the air which oftentimes finds its way into the exoskeleton of the ants. The spores then slowly penetrate the ant body and take control of its nervous system.

However, for the initial few days, the ant won’t get any wind of the infection and will carry out its normal daily activities. Later on, it will slowly lose control of its body.

It then forces the ant to leave its nest and move to a humid weather condition which is much more suitable for the quick growth of the fungus.

Slowly it gains full control of the ant body, eventually killing it after a few days. After its death, the fungus then produces a fruiting body out of the head of the dead ant which then produces a huge number of spores that can further infect other ants.

Read Also: Does Bleach Kill Ants?

Can Ants Think?

Ants do not have the neural capacity to think and feel like humans. Their brains are extremely small in size compared to mammals and they contain around 250,000 neurons in their brain in comparison to billions of neurons in humans.

Hence they only have the necessary set up in a place that allows them to fulfill their basic needs which further allows them to differentiate between what is good for them and what isn’t, but they don’t have the luxury of feeling any emotions or to think, imagine and then act based on those thoughts.

Related Article: Why are Ants Spicy?

Conclusion

Ants are fascinating creatures that, even though are tiny in size, are quite capable of performing a wide range of daily complex activities that require a lot of computational brainpower.

Every ant in the ant nest acts in a way that will be beneficial for the colony. The collective intelligence gathered as a group is much more important for their survival than the individual intelligence of any one ant.

The presence of a stomodaeal neutral network is a special feature of insects that allows their body to function for a certain amount of time without any issue even if their brain gets damaged.

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