Counting Ants—or Ants Counting?

A bizarre story from National Public Radio. Desert ants appear to count their steps from nest to food source, and then count their way back again! Yes, you read that right. Some ants count. Here’s the link to the story:

And I found this at YouTube:

Here’s my question: Are ants conscious of their counting? In other words, are the pedometer cells in their brains just functioning like a machine, or are ants in any way recursively feeling the pleasurable rhythm of the count—like a piece of music in their heads—and then stopping when the “beat” stops? Surely they don’t have different conscious feels in their head for each step (one, two, three), do they? Or perhaps each step gives off an internal musical note (gong, goot, teek). What is it like to be an ant “singing” or “hearing” a pace in its head—or “counting” out a stride?

What is it like to be an ant?

And when you step on a desert ant are you interrupting a song—a rhythm—a count?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Counting Ants—or Ants Counting?

  1. Dvir Adler says:

    The first pragmatic question that arises is how the ants remember the route they got there!? Even if you remember the length of the journey, you wouldn’t have know which direction to go (and we’re in the desert, so no obstacles here, right?)

    Second, If there was such a thing, a counting instinct, I would guess it’s something the ant doesn’t need a mechanism to interpret it. It doesn’t follow a task of listening to some rhythm.
    The neurons in its brain modify them selfs. just as any regular memory does, and when it’s time, the corresponding neurons trigger the “got home” signal. At that moment the ant will just know it’s home.

    Why the need to build some conscious mechanism over a simple algorithm even the simplest non-conscious robots can accomplish without any thinking or counting?

    Did anyone suggest that the ants remember the duration of the journey home, rather then the number of steps? (assuming they adept a constant speed of walking)

  2. santitafarella says:


    So you think that ants have no internal mental existence—that we’re projecting? You may well be right. But is there any way we might know?


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