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Temporal range: 100–0 Ma
Cenomanian – Present
Fire ants 01.jpg
A group of fire ants.
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Clade: Euarthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Superfamily: Formicoidea
Family: Formicidae
Latreille, 1809
Type species
Formica rufa
Linnaeus, 1761

Ants are eusocial insects of the family Formicidae and, along with the related wasps and bees, belong to the order Hymenoptera. Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the Cretaceous period, about 99 million years ago, and diversified after the rise of flowering plants. More than 12,500 of an estimated total of 22,000 species have been classified.[4][5] They are easily identified by their elbowed antennae and the distinctive node-like structure that forms their slender waists.

Ants form colonies that range in size from a few dozen predatory individuals living in small natural cavities to highly organised colonies that may occupy large territories and consist of millions of individuals. Larger colonies consist of various castes of sterile, wingless females, most of which are workers (ergates), as well as soldiers (dinergates) and other specialised groups.[6][7] Nearly all ant colonies also have some fertile males called "drones" (aner) and one or more fertile females called "queens" (gynes).[7] The colonies are described as superorganisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony.[8][9]

(video) Ants gathering food

Ants have colonised almost every landmass on Earth. The only places lacking indigenous ants are Antarctica and a few remote or inhospitable islands. Ants thrive in most ecosystems and may form 15–25% of the terrestrial animal biomass.[10] Their success in so many environments has been attributed to their social organisation and their ability to modify habitats, tap resources, and defend themselves. Their long co-evolution with other species has led to mimetic, commensal, parasitic, and mutualistic relationships.[11]

Ant societies have division of labour, communication between individuals, and an ability to solve complex problems.[12] These parallels with human societies have long been an inspiration and subject of study. Many human cultures make use of ants in cuisine, medication, and rituals. Some species are valued in their role as biological pest control agents.[13] Their ability to exploit resources may bring ants into conflict with humans, however, as they can damage crops and invade buildings. Some species, such as the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), are regarded as invasive species, establishing themselves in areas where they have been introduced accidentally.[14]


The word ant and its chiefly dialectal form emmet[15] come from ante, emete of Middle English, which come from ǣmette of Old English, and these are all related to the dialectal Dutch emt and the Old High German āmeiza, from which comes the modern German Ameise. All of these words come from West Germanic *ēmaitijǭ, and the original meaning of the word was "the biter" (from Proto-Germanic *ai-, "off, away" + *mait- "cut").[16][17] The family name Formicidae is derived from the Latin formīca ("ant")[18] from which the words in other Romance languages, such as the Portuguese formiga, Italian formica, Spanish hormiga, Romanian furnică, and French fourmi are derived. It has been hypothesised that a Proto-Indo-European word *morwi- was used, cf. Sanskrit vamrah, Latin formīca, Greek μύρμηξ mýrmēx, Old Church Slavonic mraviji, Old Irish moirb, Old Norse maurr, Dutch mier.[19]

Taxonomy and evolution

Ants fossilised in Baltic amber













Phylogenetic position of the Formicidae.[20]

The family Formicidae belongs to the order Hymenoptera, which also includes sawflies, bees, and wasps. Ants evolved from a lineage within the aculeate wasps, and a 2013 study suggests that they are a sister group of the Apoidea.[20] In 1966, E. O. Wilson and his colleagues identified the fossil remains of an ant (Sphecomyrma) that lived in the Cretaceous period. The specimen, trapped in amber dating back to around 92 million years ago, has features found in some wasps, but not found in modern ants.[21] Sphecomyrma was possibly a ground forager, while Haidomyrmex and Haidomyrmodes, related genera in subfamily Sphecomyrminae, are reconstructed as active arboreal predators.[22] Older ants in the genus Sphecomyrmodes have been found in 99 million year-old amber from Myanmar.[23][24] After the rise of flowering plants about 100 million years ago they diversified and assumed ecological dominance around 60 million years ago.[25][26][27][28] Some groups, such as the Leptanillinae and Martialinae, are suggested to have diversified from early primitive ants that were likely to have been predators underneath the surface of the soil.[2][29]

During the Cretaceous period, a few species of primitive ants ranged widely on the Laurasian supercontinent (the Northern Hemisphere). They were scarce in comparison to the populations of other insects, representing only about 1% of the entire insect population. Ants became dominant after adaptive radiation at the beginning of the Paleogene period. By the Oligocene and Miocene, ants had come to represent 20–40% of all insects found in major fossil deposits. Of the species that lived in the Eocene epoch, around one in 10 genera survive to the present. Genera surviving today comprise 56% of the genera in Baltic amber fossils (early Oligocene), and 92% of the genera in Dominican amber fossils (apparently early Miocene).[25][30]

Termites, although sometimes called 'white ants', are not ants. They belong to the sub-order Isoptera within the order Blattodea. Termites are more closely related to cockroaches and mantids. Termites are eusocial, but differ greatly in the genetics of reproduction. The similarity of their social structure to that of ants is attributed to convergent evolution.[31] Velvet ants look like large ants, but are wingless female wasps.[32][33]

Distribution and diversity

Region Number of
species [34]
Neotropics 2162
Nearctic 580
Europe 180
Africa 2500
Asia 2080
Melanesia 275
Australia 985
Polynesia 42

Ants are found on all continents except Antarctica, and only a few large islands, such as Greenland, Iceland, parts of Polynesia and the Hawaiian Islands lack native ant species.[35][36] Ants occupy a wide range of ecological niches and exploit many different food resources as direct or indirect herbivores, predators and scavengers. Most ant species are omnivorous generalists, but a few are specialist feeders. Their ecological dominance is demonstrated by their biomass: ants are estimated to contribute 15–20 % (on average and nearly 25% in the tropics) of terrestrial animal biomass, exceeding that of the vertebrates.[10]

Ants range in size from 0.75 to 52 millimetres (0.030–2.0 in),[37][38] the largest species being the fossil Titanomyrma giganteum, the queen of which was 6 centimetres (2.4 in) long with a wingspan of 15 centimetres (5.9 in).[39] Ants vary in colour; most ants are red or black, but a few species are green and some tropical species have a metallic lustre. More than 12,000 species are currently known (with upper estimates of the potential existence of about 22,000) (see the article List of ant genera), with the greatest diversity in the tropics. Taxonomic studies continue to resolve the classification and systematics of ants. Online databases of ant species, including AntBase and the Hymenoptera Name Server, help to keep track of the known and newly described species.[40] The relative ease with which ants may be sampled and studied in ecosystems has made them useful as indicator species in biodiversity studies.[41][42]


Ants are distinct in their morphology from other insects in having elbowed antennae, metapleural glands, and a strong constriction of their second abdominal segment into a node-like petiole. The head, mesosoma, and metasoma are the three distinct body segments. The petiole forms a narrow waist between their mesosoma (thorax plus the first abdominal segment, which is fused to it) and gaster (abdomen less the abdominal segments in the petiole). The petiole may be formed by one or two nodes (the second alone, or the second and third abdominal segments).[43]

Bull ant showing the powerful mandibles and the relatively large compound eyes that provide excellent vision

Like other insects, ants have an exoskeleton, an external covering that provides a protective casing around the body and a point of attachment for muscles, in contrast to the internal skeletons of humans and other vertebrates. Insects do not have lungs; oxygen and other gases, such as carbon dioxide, pass through their exoskeleton via tiny valves called spiracles. Insects also lack closed blood vessels; instead, they have a long, thin, perforated tube along the top of the body (called the "dorsal aorta") that functions like a heart, and pumps haemolymph toward the head, thus driving the circulation of the internal fluids. The nervous system consists of a ventral nerve cord that runs the length of the body, with several ganglia and branches along the way reaching into the extremities of the appendages.[44]

Diagram of a worker ant (Pachycondyla verenae)


An ant's head contains many sensory organs. Like most insects, ants have compound eyes made from numerous tiny lenses attached together. Ant eyes are good for acute movement detection, but do not offer a high resolution image. They also have three small ocelli (simple eyes) on the top of the head that detect light levels and polarization.[45] Compared to vertebrates, most ants have poor-to-mediocre eyesight and a few subterranean species are completely blind. However, some ants, such as Australia's bulldog ant, have excellent vision and are capable of discriminating the distance and size of objects moving nearly a metre away.[46]

Two antennae ("feelers") are attached to the head; these organs detect chemicals, air currents, and vibrations; they also are used to transmit and receive signals through touch. The head has two strong jaws, the mandibles, used to carry food, manipulate objects, construct nests, and for defence.[44] In some species, a small pocket (infrabuccal chamber) inside the mouth stores food, so it may be passed to other ants or their larvae.[47]


All six legs are attached to the mesosoma ("thorax") and terminate in a hooked claw.


Only reproductive ants, queens, and males, have wings. Queens shed their wings after the nuptial flight, leaving visible stubs, a distinguishing feature of queens. In a few species, wingless queens (ergatoids) and males occur.[44]


The metasoma (the "abdomen") of the ant houses important internal organs, including those of the reproductive, respiratory (tracheae), and excretory systems. Workers of many species have their egg-laying structures modified into stings that are used for subduing prey and defending their nests.[44]


Seven leafcutter ant workers of various castes (left) and two queens (right)

In the colonies of a few ant species, there are physical castes—workers in distinct size-classes, called minor, median, and major ergates. Often, the larger ants have disproportionately larger heads, and correspondingly stronger mandibles. These are known as macrergates while smaller workers are known as micrergates.[7] Although formally known as dinergates, such individuals are sometimes called "soldier" ants because their stronger mandibles make them more effective in fighting, although they still are workers and their "duties" typically do not vary greatly from the minor or median workers. In a few species, the median workers are absent, creating a sharp divide between the minors and majors.[48] Weaver ants, for example, have a distinct bimodal size distribution.[49][50] Some other species show continuous variation in the size of workers. The smallest and largest workers in Pheidologeton diversus show nearly a 500-fold difference in their dry-weights.[51] Workers cannot mate; however, because of the haplodiploid sex-determination system in ants, workers of a number of species can lay unfertilised eggs that become fully fertile, haploid males. The role of workers may change with their age and in some species, such as honeypot ants, young workers are fed until their gasters are distended, and act as living food storage vessels. These food storage workers are called repletes.[52] For instance, these replete workers develop in the North American honeypot ant Myrmecocystus mexicanus. Usually the largest workers in the colony develop into repletes; and, if repletes are removed from the colony, other workers become repletes, demonstrating the flexibility of this particular polymorphism.[53] This polymorphism in morphology and behaviour of workers initially was thought to be determined by environmental factors such as nutrition and hormones that led to different developmental paths; however, genetic differences between worker castes have been noted in Acromyrmex sp.[54] These polymorphisms are caused by relatively small genetic changes; differences in a single gene of Solenopsis invicta can decide whether the colony will have single or multiple queens.[55] The Australian jack jumper ant (Myrmecia pilosula) has only a single pair of chromosomes (with the males having just one chromosome as they are haploid), the lowest number known for any animal, making it an interesting subject for studies in the genetics and developmental biology of social insects.[56][57]

Life cycle

Meat eater ant nest during swarming

The life of an ant starts from an egg. If the egg is fertilised, the progeny will be female diploid; if not, it will be male haploid. Ants develop by complete metamorphosis with the larva stages passing through a pupal stage before emerging as an adult. The larva is largely immobile and is fed and cared for by workers. Food is given to the larvae by trophallaxis, a process in which an ant regurgitates liquid food held in its crop. This is also how adults share food, stored in the "social stomach". Larvae, especially in the later stages, may also be provided solid food, such as trophic eggs, pieces of prey, and seeds brought by workers.

The larvae grow through a series of four or five moults and enter the pupal stage. The pupa has the appendages free and not fused to the body as in a butterfly pupa.[58] The differentiation into queens and workers (which are both female), and different castes of workers, is influenced in some species by the nutrition the larvae obtain. Genetic influences and the control of gene expression by the developmental environment are complex and the determination of caste continues to be a subject of research.[59] Winged male ants, called drones, emerge from pupae along with the usually winged breeding females. Some species, such as army ants, have wingless queens. Larvae and pupae need to be kept at fairly constant temperatures to ensure proper development, and so often, are moved around among the various brood chambers within the colony.[60]

A new ergate spends the first few days of its adult life caring for the queen and young. She then graduates to digging and other nest work, and later to defending the nest and foraging. These changes are sometimes fairly sudden, and define what are called temporal castes. An explanation for the sequence is suggested by the high casualties involved in foraging, making it an acceptable risk only for ants who are older and are likely to die soon of natural causes.[61][62]

Ant colonies can be long-lived. The queens can live for up to 30 years, and workers live from 1 to 3 years. Males, however, are more transitory, being quite short-lived and surviving for only a few weeks.[63] Ant queens are estimated to live 100 times as long as solitary insects of a similar size.[64]

Ants are active all year long in the tropics, but, in cooler regions, they survive the winter in a state of dormancy known as hibernation. The forms of inactivity are varied and some temperate species have larvae going into the inactive state (diapause), while in others, the adults alone pass the winter in a state of reduced activity.[65]


Ants mating

A wide range of reproductive strategies have been noted in ant species. Females of many species are known to be capable of reproducing asexually through thelytokous parthenogenesis.[66] Secretions from the male accessory glands in some species can plug the female genital opening and prevent females from re-mating.[67] Most ant species have a system in which only the queen and breeding females have the ability to mate. Contrary to popular belief, some ant nests have multiple queens, while others may exist without queens. Workers with the ability to reproduce are called "gamergates" and colonies that lack queens are then called gamergate colonies; colonies with queens are said to be queen-right.[68]

Drones can also mate with existing queens by entering a foreign colony. When the drone is initially attacked by the workers, it releases a mating pheromone. If recognized as a mate, it will be carried to the queen to mate.[69] Males may also patrol the nest and fight others by grabbing them with their mandibles, piercing their exoskeleton and then marking them with a pheromone. The marked male is interpreted as an invader by worker ants and is killed.[70]

Fertilised meat-eater ant queen beginning to dig a new colony

Most ants are univoltine, producing a new generation each year.[71] During the species-specific breeding period, new reproductives, females, and winged males leave the colony in what is called a nuptial flight. The nuptial flight usually takes place in the late spring or early summer when the weather is hot and humid. Heat makes flying easier and freshly fallen rain makes the ground softer for mated queens to dig nests.[72] Males typically take flight before the females. Males then use visual cues to find a common mating ground, for example, a landmark such as a pine tree to which other males in the area converge. Males secrete a mating pheromone that females follow. Males will mount females in the air, but the actual mating process usually takes place on the ground. Females of some species mate with just one male but in others they may mate with as many as ten or more different males, storing the sperm in their spermathecae.[73]

Mated females then seek a suitable place to begin a colony. There, they break off their wings and begin to lay and care for eggs. The females can selectively fertilise future eggs with the sperm stored to produce diploid workers or lay unfertilized haploid eggs to produce drones. The first workers to hatch are known as nanitics,[74] and are weaker and smaller than later workers, but they begin to serve the colony immediately. They enlarge the nest, forage for food, and care for the other eggs. Species that have multiple queens may have a queen leaving the nest along with some workers to found a colony at a new site,[73] a process akin to swarming in honeybees.

Behaviour and ecology


Two Camponotus sericeus workers communicating through touch and pheromones

Ants communicate with each other using pheromones, sounds, and touch.[75] The use of pheromones as chemical signals is more developed in ants, such as the red harvester ant, than in other hymenopteran groups. Like other insects, ants perceive smells with their long, thin, and mobile antennae. The paired antennae provide information about the direction and intensity of scents. Since most ants live on the ground, they use the soil surface to leave pheromone trails that may be followed by other ants. In species that forage in groups, a forager that finds food marks a trail on the way back to the colony; this trail is followed by other ants, these ants then reinforce the trail when they head back with food to the colony. When the food source is exhausted, no new trails are marked by returning ants and the scent slowly dissipates. This behaviour helps ants deal with changes in their environment. For instance, when an established path to a food source is blocked by an obstacle, the foragers leave the path to explore new routes. If an ant is successful, it leaves a new trail marking the shortest route on its return. Successful trails are followed by more ants, reinforcing better routes and gradually identifying the best path.[76]

Ants use pheromones for more than just making trails. A crushed ant emits an alarm pheromone that sends nearby ants into an attack frenzy and attracts more ants from farther away. Several ant species even use "propaganda pheromones" to confuse enemy ants and make them fight among themselves.[77] Pheromones are produced by a wide range of structures including Dufour's glands, poison glands and glands on the hindgut, pygidium, rectum, sternum, and hind tibia.[64] Pheromones also are exchanged, mixed with food, and passed by trophallaxis, transferring information within the colony.[78] This allows other ants to detect what task group (e.g., foraging or nest maintenance) other colony members belong to.[79] In ant species with queen castes, when the dominant queen stops producing a specific pheromone, workers begin to raise new queens in the colony.[80]

Some ants produce sounds by stridulation, using the gaster segments and their mandibles. Sounds may be used to communicate with colony members or with other species.[81][82]


A Plectroctena sp. attacks another of its kind to protect its territory

Ants attack and defend themselves by biting and, in many species, by stinging, often injecting or spraying chemicals, such as formic acid in the case of formicine ants, alkaloids and piperidines in fire ants, and a variety of protein components in other ants. Bullet ants (Paraponera), located in Central and South America, are considered to have the most painful sting of any insect, although it is usually not fatal to humans. This sting is given the highest rating on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.

The sting of jack jumper ants can be fatal,[83] and an antivenom has been developed for it.[84]

Fire ants, Solenopsis spp., are unique in having a venom sac containing piperidine alkaloids.[85] Their stings are painful and can be dangerous to hypersensitive people.[86]