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What Is the Memory of Ants Like?

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The following is an excerpt from Quora Contributor | March 1, 2017 | Slate.com |

This question originally appeared on Quora, the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Answer by Ted Pavlic, research scientist in social-insect lab:

Although olfaction (sense of smell) is certainly important to ants, the memory story involves much more than just chemosensory recall and recognition. Different species of ants have different memory capabilities for smell, vision, and even things like the distance and direction of their home nest based on feedback from their step count.

First, it is important to address what is not clearly memory. It's not clear how much of the “memory” discussed in Matan Shelomi's answer can definitely be attributed to central nervous system mechanisms over peripheral nervous system mechanisms, let alone neurology over genetics and physiology. For example, does an ant “remember” the smell of its colony, or is there a genetically derived colony odor? Or do workers use the smell of their own cuticles for reference? Regardless, how much recognition goes on in the sensory centers of the brain opposed to odor receptors in the antennae? There is evidence for different mechanisms in different ants, and some of those mechanisms are difficult to interpret as memory. In general, this is a very active area of research right now.

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