Do ants exhibit any signs of grief (or other human-like emotions for that matter, i.e. affection..) such as mourning the loss of others from their colony, burying their dead, or trying to aid the injured? And so on..

Probably sounds like a stupid question at first but when you get right down to it they do appear to be rather sophisticated and social creatures.

I often notice ants carrying their fallen comrades. One time I poked one and it dropped the ant it was carrying and they both ran away. A few other times I did the same thing but only one ran away and the other was dead.


This is an interesting question, and more complicated than you might think. Ants (at least some species of them) move the bodies of their dead comrades to a rubbish pile away from the mound. I think most entomologists would see that as a practical instinct for hygiene.

Ant colonies do have some pretty sophisticated behaviour, like being able to quickly find the shortest path to a food source. However, it turns out we can easily reproduce this behaviour with a few lines of code following very simple rules. For example, as ants walk along, they lay down pheromone trails, which fade quickly. Perhaps 90% of the time, an ant will follow the strongest pheromone trail it encounters. The other 10% of the time, it will strike out in a random direction. As soon as the ant finds food, it returns to the colony. Now, suppose the ants are currently using two different paths to the food. The path that is shortest will tend to have the strongest and freshest pheromone trails, because the ants that go that way will return more quickly. So more ants follow that shorter path, which leads to an even stronger and fresher pheromone trail. Soon the longer path is abandoned.

Similar, other ant behaviour can be explained in terms of simple rules. That leads many people to conclude that there's "no one home" in an ant's brain, that an ant is a sort of mindless robot. A brain that can host a mind is a complicated thing to evolve; we wouldn't expect it to evolve if it was unnecessary. Interestingly, some have suggested that if there is any conscious awareness, it's at the level of the colony, not the individual ant!

So all of that would seem to suggest that ants don't grieve because they aren't conscious in the way a pet dog or cat is. But that might not be the end of the story. It seems like the more science learns about minds and consciousness, the more species we admit into the privileged circle of "mind havers". And recently there was an interesting paper that seems to indicate that insect brains could support some type of awareness. If true, that doesn't answer the question of whether or not insects have emotion, but it makes it a bit more plausible that there's "someone home" to experience emotions.

  • 1
    Exactly. While it doesn't truly answer my question, You have captured the essence of my perspective and confirmed that we are on the same page. +1 Thanks for contributing. – voices Jun 14 '16 at 13:43

Some ants kept in captivity will actually have a "graveyard" site. This is a site where they will dispose of their dead separate from their actual garbage site. I don't personally own an ant colony but this is a behavior that I've read and heard about quite a bit.

Some could debate whether or not this behavior is thought through or simply instinctive but I think this topic is greatly philosophical and opinion-based.

Whether it be a simple rule behavior and a mechanical thing or it being that they don't appreciate their dead being rummaged through by other insects and animals like mites, one thing is clear: They do dispose of their dead in peculiar ways for insects.

  • 1
    Like with humans (primarily, or at least, originally), I think this is mostly for hygiene and self preservation. Something that influenced my question was: I noticed that some tiny ants near my apartment would be carrying food back to their nest; every now and then one would be carrying another ant from the same colony; usually they were dead, but occasionally, upon being disturbed, ant-x drop ant-y, and they would both retreat. I thought maybe ant-y was tired or injured, and ant-x was there to assist. So I guess I was looking for evidence to suggest/refute sentiment or emotional intelligence. – voices May 9 '17 at 9:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.