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Research from the University of Western Australia has uncovered an interesting relationship between ants and termites. 

Ants and termites are often perceived as ‘mortal enemies’. We’ve all heard the old wives’ tale that termites won’t attack a house if black ants are around. And while pest managers know this isn’t true, latest research has revealed a surprising and previously unknown fact – termites avoid ants by listening out for their footsteps!

How termites are able to detect the presence of ants and therefore avoid contact is largely unknown. Certainly, ants use chemical cues (pheromones) as a key communication tool, so it would make sense that termites would use the presence of such chemicals as a warning sign that predatory ants are in the area. However, the latest research suggests that termites can detect the presence of ants by using sound (vibrations) alone.

A group of Australian researchers, including Dr Theo Evans from the University of Western Australia, investigated the relationship between Coptotermes acinaciformis and their major predator, Iridomyrmex purpureus (southern meat ant).

Trials demonstrated that the termites could detect meat ant workers (main picture) through thin wood by listening for the vibration of their footsteps (no chemical cues).

The researchers carried out the trials in a sound proof room, in an attempt to exclude external noises and vibrations which would affect their detection equipment.

With an ant weighing only a few milligrams, how termites detect and recognise such vibrations, amongst other sounds, is unknown.

A comparison of 16 termite and ant species found that ants make a noise whilst walking up to 100 times louder than termites. The researchers concluded that ‘eavesdropping’ on passive walking signals explains the predator detection and foraging behaviours in this ancient relationship.

Further reading: Sebastian Oberst et al. ‘Cryptic termites avoid predatory ants by eavesdropping on vibrational cues from their footsteps’. Ecology Letters (2017).