Why some ants have bigger brains

Alex Wild/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Why some ants have bigger brains

Animals that live in larger societies tend to have larger brains. But why? Is it because a larger group size requires members to divide up the labor on tasks, thus causing some individuals to develop specialized brains and neural anatomy? (Compared with most humans, for instance, taxicab drivers have brains that have larger areas that are involved with spatial memory.) Or is it because the challenges of group living—needing to know all the foibles of your neighbors—cause the brains of all members to grow larger? Scientists tested the two hypotheses with wild colonies of acacia ants (Pseudomyrmex spinicola), which make their nests in the hollow spines of acacia trees in Panama. Ant workers at the base of the tree wait to attack intruders, while workers foraging on the leaves (as in the photo above), aren’t as aggressive but are faster at managing the colony’s brood. This division of labor is most marked in larger colonies (those found on larger trees), while workers in smaller colonies do both jobs. The scientists studied 17 colonies of ants and measured the brain volumes of 29 of the leaf ants and 34 of the trunk ants. As the colony size increased, the leaf ants showed a marked increase in the regions of the brain concerned with learning and memory, the scientists report today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. But the same neural areas decreased in the trunk ants. Thus, larger societies’ need for specialized workers, some strictly for defense, others for foraging and brood tending—rather than for social masters—seems to be the key to the expanding brain, at least in ants.

Follow News from Science