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I have always been told to watch to see if ant-hole mounds are built up as a sign of imminent rainfall. My questions are,

if what I have always been told is true, then by what mechanism do ants 'sense' the imminent rainfall? Is it a case of sensing air pressure drop, increasing humidity or both?

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Thank you for the edit - I could not think of the word 'entomology' when I posted :) –  user3795 Jun 19 '13 at 21:24

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An article suggests that many animals and plants have an instinctual response to seasonal cues like light levels or day length (photoperiod). Also they may be influenced by circannual clocks which depend on factors like temperature, the photoperiod and the increase or decrease in food levels available. There is also some speculation that ants may be influenced by barometric pressure changes though there is no literature available for the same (reference). There are methods that ants have devised to escape rain some of which are mentioned in this article. You might be interested in reading this article on the spread of Argentine ants being influenced by rain.

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The circadian clock is a bit of a red harring here. Circadian and circannual rhythms are widely studies, and the molecular mechanism underlying them are quite well established (at least for circadian, less so for circannual). However, this does not imply in any way animals can sense changes in barometric pressure. They may or they may not, but circadian or circannual rhythms have nothing to do with that. –  nico Jul 12 at 10:03

This article claims that ants do sense approaching rain and modify their activities in preparation. The claim is not sourced. This weather site also speaks of ant mound-building before a rain but frankly places it in the "some folks say" category. The AntBlog is associated with AntWeb, a large multi-university-affiliated database. The author of the linked blog states that ants can sense humidity with their antennae, which strikes me as a plausible means of anticipating rain.

That ants might sense changes in barometric pressure is an intriguing idea but has not to my knowledge been demonstrated.

A 2010 article in Journal of Neurophysiology reports an almost unbelievable sensitivity to temperature in ant antennae, allowing them in principle to sense minute temperature changes ($0.005^o$C) over a wide range of temperatures and over 0.2 second time intervals (5Hz). This is said to assist them in orientation in their microenvironment but I think it goes a long way to accounting for an ability to detect looming weather fronts. Humans can sometimes 'smell' rain and we can detect gross temperature changes that almost always accompany rain, but to be able to detect humidity and micro-scale temperature changes would give the ants a real advantage in forecasting. After all, not all rainstorms are preceded by a dramatic drop in temperature but probably the majority are preceded by minute step-wise drops in temperature that evidently the ants can sense.

So while I think the building activity may be anecdotal (and probably true for some species) the ability to sense humidity changes and micro-scale temperature changes accounts for their ability to sense rain ahead of time.

Ants are very well-studied and it's hard to rule out that one has missed something. There are a few "ask the expert" questions on this topic online and no one seemed sure.

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