Given the tiny size of ants, they are typically not assumed to be packing much brain power, but as it happens, these tiny insects can retain memories that last their whole lives. Not only can ants retain memories, but the colonies that they live within also retain memories. Amazingly, an ant colony can retain memories long after the colony’s constituent ants have died off. In fact, ant colonies can retain memories over several ant generations. This discovery has researchers in awe of ant colonies, but more research is necessary in order to fully understand this fascinating natural phenomena.

Ant queens can live for ten to thirty years, but all other ants within a colony die off within 2 years, at most. Despite this, researchers have recently found that redwood ant colonies can retain memories for many years and over several generations. These ants search trees for aphids every year before they huddle together beneath the snow in order to stay warm during the winter season. Once the snow melts during the spring season, the ants emerge with a new generation of offspring. The old ants are able to remember the path that leads to the food sources that they had discovered the previous fall. Before embarking down these old paths, a young ant joins the old ant so that it too can memorize the path to food. Soon after, the old ant dies, but the young ant survives long enough to map out the path to food for the next generation, and this cycle repeats with each generation.

In order to determine if ant colonies retain memories, researchers altered these paths so that older ants were no longer be able to recognize their surroundings, and therefore, were no longer able to find their way to the food that they had discovered the previous fall. The older ants were unable to recall how to reach their food, but after a short period, the ants reestablished their previous trails, indicating that only the colony retained a memory of the foraging trail. Researchers also found that older colonies were better at understanding their surroundings and were more effective at securing food than younger colonies, despite the ants in each colony being the same age. According to the study’s authors, older colonies had cleary retained more information about their surroundings and were generally wiser in their conduct than younger colonies.

Do you think that other social insect colonies retain memories like redwood ants do?