Sugar ants’ preference for pee may reduce greenhouse gas emissions

News Release 6-Feb-2020

University of South Australia


Sugar ants mining urine in sand on Kangaroo Island Credit UniSA / Sophie Petit

An unlikely penchant for pee is putting a common sugar ant on the map, as new research from the University of South Australia shows their taste for urine could play a role in reducing greenhouse gases.

Led by wildlife ecologist Associate Professor Topa Petit, the Kangaroo Island-based research found that sugar ants prefer urine over sugar – the food source after which they’re named – nocturnally foraging on it to extract nitrogen molecules, some of which could end up in the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.

The Australian-first study compared the behaviours of sugar ants (Camponotus terebrans) as they were exposed to different concentrations of urine (human and kangaroo ~ 2.5 per cent urea), sugar water (20 per cent and 40 per cent), and urea in water (at 2.5 per cent; 3.5 per cent; 7 per cent and 10 per cent), finding that sugar ants were most attracted to higher concentrations of urea, mining them for long periods within a dry sand substrate.

While other ants are known to be attracted to urine, this is the first time that ants have been observed mining dry urine from sand, and for a long period of time.

Assoc Prof Petit says the curious discovery could play a role in nitrogen cycling.

“When I first noticed the ants swarming to scavenge urine, it was purely by accident. But under research conditions we found that the ants determinedly mined urea patches night after night with greater numbers of ants drawn to higher urea concentrations,” Assoc Prof Petit says.

“Camponotus terebrans are undoubtedly looking for urea in urine because, similar to certain other ant species, a bacterium in their digestive tract allows them to process urea to get nitrogen for protein.

“This remarkable ability to extract urea from dry sand not only shows how sugar ants can survive in arid conditions, but also, how they might reduce the release of ammonia from urine, which leads to the production of nitrous oxide, a highly active greenhouse gas.”

Nitrous oxide (NO2) is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And while less abundant than carbon dioxide emissions, its presence in the atmosphere has increased substantially over the past decade, accelerated mostly by the widespread use of fertilisers.

Assoc Prof Petit says that while there is still a lot to learn about the foraging behaviours of sugar ants, the study shows a symbiotic relationship between ants and vertebrates such as kangaroos in dry environments, and evidence of the nitrogen cycle at work.

“The ability of sugar ants to thrive in dry, sandy environments and use sources of nitrogen that may not be available to other species is impressive. It may give them a competitive advantage by allowing them to feed more offspring and therefore increase their numbers,” Assoc Prof Petit says.

“Researchers working on ants as bio-indicators on grazed and ungrazed lands should take ants’ ability to process urea into account, because large amounts of urine will probably affect the assortment of ant species in the area. It would also be interesting to investigate how much ants may modify the urine ammonia volatilises from paddocks.

“This is not the last we will hear about these sugar ants – they could open up a whole new field of research.”


From EurekAlert!

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February 6, 2020 10:10 pm

After reading this Australian study comparing the behaviours of sugar ants, I feel that the collective intelligence of the ants may have the edge on the scientists studying the ants.

Reply to  nicholas tesdorf
February 7, 2020 1:46 am

nicholas tesdorf


Charles HIgley
Reply to  nicholas tesdorf
February 7, 2020 5:19 am

“Nitrous oxide (NO2) is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”

First off, nirtrous oxide is N2O and NOT N2O, so which is he talking about? Which one?

Better yet, as CO2 only has an emission band at -80ºC and transparent to all other frequencies other than two frequencies equivalent to 400 and 800ºC, CO2 in the upper tropical atmosphere, which is where greenhouse gases reputedly operate, at -17ºC, cannot warm Earth’s surface at 15ºC. Thermodynamically impossible.

N2O has two pathetic, narrow IR absorption bands at 370 and 123ºC, which means it can only send down IR when in sunlight, at which time it effectively short-stops solar energy and re-radiates half of it back to space, making it a cooling gas. At night the gas does nothing at all. Furthermore it is at about 328 ppm and thus over a thousand times less concentrated that CO2.

Nitrogen dioxide, NO2, has only one main absorption peak equivalent to 194ºC, which means, again, it would only be activated while in sunlight and serve to redirect some solar IR energy back to space, thus, again, cooling the surface by short-stopping sunlight.

The attributions and claims that such and such a gas is ???? times more powerful a greenhouse gas (GHG)are fabricated from nothing, no basis in fact. As CO2 has 0 heating effect on the surface, who cares if a gas is 300 times the GHG compared to CO2. The fact rains that 300 times 0 is ZERO.
Furthermore, it is about 45 ppm in the atmosphere, which means it is 10,000 times less concentrated than CO2. Again, a non-starter.

Charles Higley
Reply to  Charles HIgley
February 7, 2020 6:56 am

Dar spell checker over-rode my typing.

The concentrations of N2O is 328 PPB and that of NO2 at 45 PPB, not ppm.
Sorry about that.

Reply to  Charles HIgley
February 7, 2020 7:21 am

If it radiates, it can warm. Period. Actual temperature influences how much it radiates, that’s it.

Photons don’t have temperature, they have energy. As long as they have energy they can impart that energy to something else.

Craig from Oz
Reply to  MarkW
February 7, 2020 5:01 pm

Yes but once the period of radiation is over, where does it get the new energy?

And is this radiation directional? Is every single unit of energy radiated back down on the polar bears, or does some of it go out into space?

Asking for a friend 🙂

Rod Evans
Reply to  Charles HIgley
February 7, 2020 7:22 am

Charles, I think is is fair to say, the ants are taking the p*** out of the so called climate alarmist scientists.

Reply to  Rod Evans
February 7, 2020 12:44 pm

Extracting the urine is what climatologists are best at. Maybe they will pick up a few tips on how to do to kangaroos as well as the entire human population.

the study shows a symbiotic relationship between ants and vertebrates such as kangaroos in dry environments, and evidence of the nitrogen cycle at work.

Symbiosis is a two way process. Where is the payback for taking the piss?

Climate scientists need to know in order to better understand future risks to funding.

Reply to  Charles HIgley
February 7, 2020 7:23 am

You seem to believe that when something has a temperature, it only radiates photons at the energy associated with that temperature.
This is not correct.
The radiation spectrum peaks at that temperature, but it also radiates at other energy levels. The amount radiated drops rapidly as you get away from the central peak.

Reply to  nicholas tesdorf
February 7, 2020 12:31 pm

After reading the title (ants and pee), the first thing I thought of were pissants (no, they’re actually real).

Chris Hanley
February 6, 2020 10:17 pm

That fascinating finding could explain the origin of the expression: ‘ants in your pants’.

Ron Long
Reply to  Chris Hanley
February 7, 2020 2:20 am

Also the origin of the term “pi$$ant”?

Reply to  Ron Long
February 7, 2020 5:14 am

From Urealert?

Patrick MJD
February 6, 2020 10:26 pm

I wonder how much she gets paid to study this kind of thing as I am sure I have peed on ants at some point in time.

February 6, 2020 10:34 pm

well that explains why the earth is warring ..
there are now 8 billion pisssers (people) alive and well
vs 1 billion in 1900…

Mark Fraser
February 6, 2020 10:43 pm

Diabetic population, needs research!

Reply to  Mark Fraser
February 7, 2020 3:32 am

my first thought too

February 6, 2020 10:59 pm

This seems to be a case of “get a mention of climate change into the grant application.”

Reply to  BillP
February 7, 2020 6:59 am

Exactly my thought.

Stephen Skinner
Reply to  BillP
February 7, 2020 7:10 am

““This is not the last we will hear about these sugar ants – they could open up a whole new field of research.”
Must be a typo. I’m sure they meant “…new field of grants”.

Rod Evans
Reply to  Stephen Skinner
February 7, 2020 7:27 am

I feel a new academic meme coming on, Ants mean grants, or possibly, Great, ants mean Greta grants!

Stephen Skinner
Reply to  Rod Evans
February 7, 2020 9:10 am

Include Hugh Grant somewhere.

February 6, 2020 11:23 pm

Assoc Prof Petit says that there is still a lot to learn about the foraging behaviours of sugar ants. She would be well advised to work on just that and not make asinine comments that reveal her abject lack of knowledge about climate. A tonne of ants, say, generating between them a tonne of GHGs every day would generate 365.25 tonnes of GHG per year (we’re doing climate science, so we have to have at least two decimal places). Earth’s GHG content is multiple petatonnes – a measure so large no-one ever uses it. Our tonne of ants would take around 1,000,000,000,001.57 years to generate a noticeable proportion of that. At our sun’s current rate of progress, it will have exploded and regenerated after the following big bang several dozen times by then.

Just study ants, professor.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Mike Jonas
February 7, 2020 4:18 am

Significance isn’t a thing, Mike. If one atom of arsenic falls into the ocean, the ocean biosphere is being poisoned. If one molecule of urea is converted to ant protein instead of nitrous oxide, global warming is being reduced. Why do you hate science?

This reduction of nitrous oxide will be useful to explain why the models all run hot (but we will assert that the ants are endangered, so this could all hit a tipping point soon if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels and eliminate any growth of western economies). No human activity that could disturb ants can be tolerated! More socialism is urgently needed. Also, since the research now has relevance to the state religion, it must be fully funded!

Naturally it’s EurekAlert!

Peter Tari
February 6, 2020 11:49 pm

“Nitrous oxide (NO2) is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”
Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, is an oxide of nitrogen with the formula N2O and not NO2. It is less potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because of its low atmospheric concentration, less than 1/1000 of that of CO2.

Reply to  Peter Tari
February 7, 2020 4:23 am

Nitrogen Dioxide is poisonous, Nitrous oxide is not. I’d be quite happy to inhale the latter in a 50:50 concentration with oxygen (Entonox) but not the former!

Reply to  Peter Tari
February 7, 2020 5:17 am

That illustrates their level of incompetence.

Gerry, England
Reply to  Peter Tari
February 7, 2020 5:34 am

But 300 times zero is still zero…

Ancient Mariner
February 6, 2020 11:53 pm

Looks to me like a candidate for the IgNobel Prize.

February 7, 2020 12:12 am

WTF, seriously?

Now these discoveries about ants can be important in the ecological sense and they could have some practical use (say, using ants to clean up areas contaminated with human urine).
But tying this into the global warming emergency is a sign that one can barely do any research on any subject without mentioning approvingly the magic words, these days.

Reply to  FabioC.
February 7, 2020 1:52 am


What global warming emergency?

Greg Woods
Reply to  FabioC.
February 7, 2020 2:27 am

Perhaps San Francisco would benefit from these ants….

Clarky of Oz
Reply to  Greg Woods
February 7, 2020 4:06 am

Good old Aussie bull ants would do a better job.

Bull ants are large, alert ants that can grow up to 40 mm They have characteristic large eyes and long, slender mandibles and a potent venom-loaded sting. They have superior vision, able to track and even follow intruders from a distance of 1 metre. Many species of bull ants have bright red or orange colours on the head or abdomen.

There are about 90 species of bull ants in Australia with diverse behaviours and life cycles. Nine bull ant species have been recorded in Sydney, but there may be more as yet undiscovered. Some of the smaller species are known as jumper ants after their habit of aggressively jumping toward intruders.

Reply to  FabioC.
February 7, 2020 3:37 am

Im a bit suss on it, might be cos KI soils are deficient?
cos where I live has the most and most varied types of ants Ive ever seen, and theres none anywhere the dogs sheep or horses go to do their business.
surely if this is the case then not just one species in one place would be doing it.

Paul Kolk
February 7, 2020 1:40 am

Order one hundred tons of these ants immediately, to be delivered to Glastonbury this summer………

February 7, 2020 1:45 am

Ye Gods!

Ed Zuiderwijk
February 7, 2020 5:21 am

Methinks they are taking the p1ss.

February 7, 2020 6:11 am

Saved by ants? Education is devolving even faster than anyone thought possible. As is the burning of grant money…..

Rod Evans
February 7, 2020 7:32 am

Am I the only one, or does anyone else think some so called scientists, have too much time on their hands?

February 7, 2020 7:55 am

So Sugar Ants were misnamed and should have been called Piss Ants?

Rod Evans
Reply to  Greg61
February 7, 2020 8:33 am

Would those who study those particular ants be called, Piss Antists?

Reply to  Greg61
February 7, 2020 10:37 am

I have heard, and called them, both sugar ants and piss ants (the photo shows something other than sugar ants).

Reply to  DonM
February 7, 2020 11:55 am

I looked, I’m wrong, they are Banded Sugar Ants.

My sugar ants are very small and all black & appear to be officially called
‘odorous house ants’ (formic acid stinkers that you can smell from 3′ away)

Steve Z
February 7, 2020 9:08 am

Nitrogen oxides do not play much role in climate change, although they are considered pollutants. Nitrogen oxides (particularly NO) are known for reacting with oxygen in the atmosphere on sunny days to produce ozone, which is toxic in the lower atmosphere, although its presence in the stratosphere helps absorb harmful UV rays from the sun. Since nitrogen oxides are very chemically reactive, they do not tend to accumulate in the atmosphere as CO2 does.

Nitrogen oxides are normally produced during combustion of light hydrocarbons at high temperatures, which can cause normally inert nitrogen (N2) in the air to react with oxygen. Large emitters of nitrogen oxides tend to remove them from flue gas by “selective catalytic reduction”, where a small amount of ammonia is injected into the flue gas and reacted over catalyst to produce harmless nitrogen and water vapor.

The researcher into urine-eating ants noted that they consume urea to use the nitrogen atoms for proteins. Urea is the common name for carboxydiamine, or H2NC=ONH2. If the ants are oxidizing the amino groups in urea, the process probably generates CO2 as a by-product, and contributes to “global warming”.

But you can’t blame the ants–they are serving a useful purpose by converting urine into anteater food.

February 7, 2020 9:18 am

In 1982 this was reported in journal Experientia; see “Guststory preferences of ants (Camponatus compresses) for urea and sugar”

Lewis P Buckingham
February 8, 2020 3:01 am

Di nitrogen monoxide, N2O,is nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, used by dentists for ‘relative analgesia’ and abandoned for veterinary use as it does not appear to provide analgesia, displaces oxygen, is largely inert and builds up in the guts anyway.
The Professor must be talking about this gas not NO2, nitrogen dioxide, a soluble, acid gas that would presumably destroy the ant once in solution in the gut.
Sugar ants in my area collect ‘honey dew’ from sap sucking insects on mainly gum trees. This is their energy source.Despite plenty of animal urine around here they definitely choose sugary food.
As a child I set up a colony with queens and fed them on flies I caught, they would not eat them.
It is hard to have anyone fund the study of ants, a most interesting animal, I used watch them for hours.
Australia is a net carbon sink, so we are already doing our bit for the climate.
In his,The Ant World: Derek Wragge Morley, which I read as a child, places in the fore script a quote from the Old Testament
Proverbs 6;6
‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:’
It follows that her energy, thrift and toils in the Sun are to be exemplified.
Ants are great gardeners, gatherers of energy and miners, even mining waste products.
I look forward to the day when they may be studied without the need to tack on that bit about ‘more research needed’, ‘Climate Change’ and ‘appropriate for those full fee paying overseas students’ just to get things over the line.

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