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Ants create social relationships by vomiting into each other's mouths.

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Ants, like people, have social networks, however, instead of exchanging information through posts and comments, they vomit into each other's mouths.

Most insects have three guts: the foregut, the midgut, and the hindgut. However, for social insects, the foregut has evolved into a "social stomach," according to Adria LeBoeuf, assistant professor and director of the Laboratory of Social Fluids at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. According to LeBoeuf, the main author of a recent paper reporting the findings, the contents of the midgut and hindgut are digested, whereas the contents of the foregut are supposed to be shared.

Trophallaxis, or the act of regurgitating food into the mouth of another organism, is especially common in highly sociable organisms such as ants. Nutrients and proteins are transported from one individual's social stomach to another during a trophallaxis event, and via a series of repeated exchanges, the ants establish a "social circulatory system" that connects each member of the colony to everyone else, according to LeBoeuf.

Carpenter ants (Camponotus) continually exchange nutrients in this manner. If you look at one colony, you can see "20 trophallaxis episodes" in a single minute, according to LeBoeuf. (An ant colony may contain thousands of ants.)

"We published an article about five years ago characterizing the fact that when ants execute trophallaxis, they aren't just delivering external food," LeBoeuf said, referring to a 2016 report in the journal eLife. "They're releasing hormones, nestmate identification cues, tiny RNAs, and a variety of other things."

Ants aren't simply swapping nutrition when they vomit into each other's mouths, according to the study's authors. Instead, the ants are constructing a digestive social network in which energy and knowledge have constantly circulated the colony and retrieved by individuals who require these resources. This is similar to how your brain can secrete a hormone and then send it to your circulatory system, where it eventually reaches your liver.

Lebouf considers an ant colony to be a "colonial superorganism," or a group of individual ants that works as if it were a body. Similar to how a person has tissues and organs that conduct tasks in support of a common objective, groups of ants with diverse jobs might be thought of as the superorganism's tissues and organs. Foragers gather food, nurses care for children, workers dig tunnels, and so on. Organs use the circulatory system to transport much more than just food, so could the social circulatory system do more as well?

"We investigated whether the proteins they interchange are linked to an individual's job in the colony or the colony's life cycle to help us understand why ants share these fluids," lead author Sanja Hakala, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Fribourg, said in a statement.

LeBoeuf and Hakala examined the social stomach contents of carpenter ants in both wild and lab-raised colonies in their most recent study. They detected 519 proteins being transmitted around the ant colonies in their samples; 27 of those proteins were found in all of their samples, regardless of the colony's age, location, or individual ant status.

According to LeBoeuf, the workers appear to be hunting for food, converting it into certain proteins, and then moving those proteins around. The scientists discovered that when a colony matures, more nutrient storage proteins — which operate as a highly concentrated food supply — enter circulation, thus older colonies contain more of these proteins overall than younger colonies.

"Adults in ant colonies don't always need to feed," LeBoeuf explained to Live Science. "Instead, they gradually degrade these nutrient-storing proteins."

Many adults in the colony do not have to eat because ants eat on the colony's behalf.

"These findings demonstrate that some colony members can perform metabolic labour for the benefit of others," stated Hakala in a release.

LeBoeuf and colleagues were able to tell the difference between juvenile and mature colonies, as well as wild and lab-raised colonies, by assessing which proteins were located where. which have significantly less protein diversity in their social stomachs than their wild counterparts

The scientists discovered that the social stomach contents of an individual ant can also influence its role in the colony. Nurse ants, which care for the young, had higher levels of anti-ageing proteins than other members of the colony, possibly to secure their survival to care for future generations.

"We now know that things are formed in specific people and end up in other people, which is incredibly exciting," LeBoeuf added. However, she stated that there are still many unanswered questions. For example, the researchers discovered that foragers had higher amounts of nutrition storage proteins than nurses, but nurses produced those proteins faster. The researchers are baffled as to why this is the case.

LeBoeuf believes that studying systems such as nutrition exchange in ants can help scientists better understand how metabolic labour is distributed inside individual organisms, such as between the cells that make up a body. "It's difficult to quantify how metabolic labour is distributed among cells," LeBoeuf added. "The ants here pass things around in such a way that humans can simply access what they're sharing."