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Red ants often move in a group, and seem to follow a trail one after the other.

Once, I rubbed a part of the path along which they were moving and surprisingly found that the successive ants roaming around the rubbed region became confused as to where to go. It seems that the preceding ants secrete some kind of chemical (hormones, excretory wastes or body secretions) which guide the other ants to follow it. What is this secretion?

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The simple answer is that ants secrete a substance called trail pheromone as they forage for food and each ant follows the trail of trail pheromone that is laid down by the preceding ant.

The term 'trail pheromone' can be a bit indistinct, however. Rather than consisting of a single chemical, trail pheromone is composed of many different chemicals, the exact compositions of which appear to be used deliberately to deliver complex information about the details of a given foraging site.

In the linked paper, the authors suggest that the

use of several trail pheromones that differ in their persistence provides memory over differing time scales. In particular, a non-volatile pheromone can provide a longer-term memory, while a volatile pheromone can allow rapid choice among potential feeding locations by quickly ‘forgetting’ depleted locations.

This means that ants may be able to use pheromones to assemble a sort of "collective memory" for the colony, concerning the locations of food and the quantity of food found at each location.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do all the ants marching secrete this 'trail pheromone'? $\endgroup$ – rishab bairagi Mar 31 '16 at 3:56
  • $\begingroup$ From what I've read, most ants secrete 'trail pheromone', but can vary the chemicals that are in each secretion of trail pheromone, to tailor it to their particular need. $\endgroup$ – Forest Mar 31 '16 at 14:30

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