Communication in social insects such as ants is based on intelligent criteria that integrate information from multiple variables, but the identity of these variables has been unclear. In a brief communication in May 1 Nature, Michael Greene and Deborah Gordon from Stanford University show that cuticular hydrocarbons, which differ according to task, are used by workers of the red harvester ant to recognize the tasks of the ants that they encounter (Nature, 423:32, May 1, 2003).

Greene and Gordon studied nine mature colonies of the red harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) at a well established study site in Rodeo, New Mexico. P. barbatus is a seed-eating, desert-dwelling species whose workers can be grouped into foragers (who collect food) and patrollers (who scout the foraging area). Greene and Gordon mimicked the flow of returning patrollers by dropping 3-mm glass beads into the nest at 10-second intervals. The...

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