One incredible characteristic that stands ants apart from other insects is that they nearly immediately bury their dead. Of course, this is to reduce the risk that the whole colony is infected by a disease. Many theories have been put forth about how they know the ant is dead immediately but the bottom line is that ants can smell death.
The initial theory was that dead ants release a chemical that signals their body is decomposing and needs to be buried quickly. This is a way that even during death the ant is able to signal to his colony what needs to be done. However, new research from a team in Argentina has shown that dead and live ants both possess this chemical simultaneously. What does this mean?
Ants differentiate live ants and dead ants simply by smell. They can differentiate dead chemicals and live chemicals almost immediately and never make an error. Basically once a live ant dies, its live chemicals quickly disappear living behind only the chemical that ants associate with death.
So when an ant dies it does not actually release a new decomposing chemical as initially thought. The reason that the colony quickly carries it off to their graveyard is that it no longer smells like a living ant.
Dong-Hwan Choe a researcher from the University of California, Riverside has been studying Argentine ants that are vicious fighters. This has allowed him to focus his research on the life and death of ants & how they get rid of the bodies. Due to being such territorial creatures, Argentine ants regular fight wars with termites and therefore, Choe has witnessed many ant burials during his time studying the ant fighting.
The study is essential for developing new pesticides that are more environmentally friendly, recently having been highlighted on Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Choe hopes to receive the necessary funding to continue his research into the death of ants. By understanding the death process of ants, scientists are able to create pesticides that achieve the same results without as many environmentally damaging chemicals in them.