These ants keep cleaner nurseries than we do

Azteca ants (above) utilize the naturally segmented stalks of Trumpet trees as separate rooms. (Credit: Lauren Nichols)

Azteca ants are better at limiting pathogenic microbes in their nurseries than humans, according to a new study.

The research also found that the microbial make-up—or microbiome—of ant colonies varies from chamber to chamber, much like the microbiome differences we see from room to room in human homes.

The microbiome of each human dwelling is unique to its inhabitants, and the microbiome of each room is unique to the purpose of the room. For example, not only is the microbiome of your bathroom (hopefully) different from the microbiome of your kitchen, but the microbiome of your kitchen is also distinct from the microbiome of your neighbor’s kitchen.

These microbiomes can have positive and negative effects on our health, and humans actively influence the microbial community of our dwellings with a range of techniques, from using antibacterial cleaning products to taking probiotics.

We now know that ants also have unique microbiomes, both from colony to colony and even between chambers within a single colony. A team of researchers, including Rob Dunn, a professor in North Carolina State University’s department of applied ecology, examined Azteca ant colonies in Trumpet trees (Cecropia peltata). Azteca ants utilize the naturally segmented stalks of Trumpet trees as separate rooms to rear young (brood chambers), store food (carton chambers), and take breaks (worker chambers). Like us, ants actively influence the microbial communities of a room by doing things that favor good microbes and suppress the bad (think of this as good housekeeping).

In fact, Azteca ants are much better than we are at suppressing potentially harmful microbes in their brood chambers, which are the equivalent of our daycare centers. This may be due to the structural changes ants make to brood chambers and their intense cleaning rituals.

“Ants have been living in homes for more than a hundred million years,” Dunn says. “During that time, they’ve figured out a thing or two about making a nice apartment. This work, led by Jane Lucas, gives us a glimpse into the housekeeping of one tropical ant species. And that housekeeping appears, at least given the evidence to date, to be more microbially sophisticated than anything we do in our human homes.”

The manuscript appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. First author of the paper is Jane Lucas of the University of Idaho. Coauthors are from NC State, Kennesaw State University, Arizona State University, Mary Baldwin University, and Bayer Crop Science Division.

Source: NC State