Ants are also capable of learning
Insects store knowledge and experience in their brains. The amount of knowledge acquired is manifested in the size of the mushroom bodies. In ants, those areas that process scent information are particularly well developed. The brain enables people to learn throughout their lives - although it becomes increasingly difficult for them to do so as they get older. It resembles many an animal: it is much easier to teach manners to a young dog than to an old one. But it is really astonishing that such “primitive” animals as insects also have the ability to learn.
The ability to learn allows animals to better adapt to their environment. Especially when the environmental conditions change, the ability of an animal species to learn pays off. While some butterflies and other insects are instinctively "pre-programmed" for the color or scent of their food plant, it is important for bees, for example, to be able to quickly learn the scents and colors of new plants - depending on whether they are fruit trees, chestnut trees or entire fields of yellow rape blossom.
Like humans and vertebrates, the ability to learn is localized in the brain of insects. Scientists at the Biozentrum of the University of Würzburg are investigating whether the learning ability and behavioral diversity of a species or even the individual experience of an individual is reflected in the structure of the brain. In addition to bees, ants are also known for their ability to learn. That explains Dr. Wulfila Gronenberg from the Chair of Zoology II, whose project is being funded by the German Research Foundation, using an example: "Forest ants not only learn the special scent of their home hill and its surroundings, but also memorize distinctive optical structures to recall from their migrations to find home.” Even in the laboratory, after some training, these ants could memorize the shortest path in a maze.
The scientists associate such complex behavioral performances with certain structures in the ant brain, the so-called mushroom bodies. These fungal bodies are found in all insects, but are particularly large in ants. The Würzburg biologists can even identify areas in the mushroom bodies in which either visual or olfactory information is processed. For bees and wasps, eyes play a paramount role, especially when flying, while flightless ants rely more on their sense of smell - some ant species are even blind. "We have evidence that these differences are reflected at the mushroom body level," says Dr. Gronenberg: In wasps, the visual part of the mushroom bodies seems to be the largest, in bees the visual and olfactory information-processing parts are roughly balanced, while the ant mushroom bodies seem to be mostly occupied with the evaluation of olfactory information. These findings suggest that the fungal bodies do indeed play a critical role in controlling behavior. According to the Würzburg biologists, another project has shown that the fungus bodies are larger in older ants and those that are exploring their surroundings and looking for food than in young and inactive ones. Similar to the mammalian brain, experience and age have an influence on the structure of the mushroom bodies in insects.