To drink or grasp? How bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) differentiate between sugars and proteins in liquids


Flexibility in behavior can increase the likelihood that a forager may respond optimally in a fluctuating environment. Nevertheless, physiological or neuronal constraints may result in suboptimal responses to stimuli. We observed foraging workers of the giant tropical ant (also referred to as the “bullet ant”), Paraponera clavata, as they reacted to liquid solutions with varying concentrations of sugar and protein. We show that when protein/sucrose concentration is high, many bullet ants will often try to grasp at the droplet, rather than gather it by drinking. Because P. clavata actively hunt for prey, fixed action patterns and rapid responses to protein may be adaptively important, regardless of the medium in which it is presented. We conclude that, in P. clavata, food-handling decisions are made in response to the nutrient content of the food rather than the texture of the food. Further, we suggest that colonies that maintain a mixture of individuals with consistent fixed or flexible behavioral responses to food-handling decisions may be better adapted to fluctuating environmental conditions, and we propose future studies that could address this.

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For logistical support, we thank R. Vargas, B. Matarrita, D. Brenes, and O. Vargas, and the remaining staff of the Organization for Tropical Studies. We thank Amy Geffre for illustrating bullet ant feeding behaviors, and Sarah Bengston for help in editing the manuscript. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant numbers OISE-0854259 and OISE-1130156).

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Correspondence to Jennifer Jandt.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Jandt, J., Larson, H.K., Tellez, P. et al. To drink or grasp? How bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) differentiate between sugars and proteins in liquids. Naturwissenschaften 100, 1109–1114 (2013).

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  • Bullet ants
  • Central place foraging
  • Protein concentration
  • Sugar concentration