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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Nature   [before 3 April 1873]1

Instinct Perception in Ants

The following fact with respect to the habits of ants, which I believe to be quite new, has been sent to me by a distinguished geologist, Mr. J. D. Hague;2 and it appears well worth publishing.

Charles Darwin

On the mantelshelf of our sitting-room my wife has the habit of keeping fresh flowers. A vase stands at each end, and near the middle a small tumbler, usually filled with violets.

Sometime ago I noticed a file of very small red ants on the wall above the left-hand vase, passing upward and downward between the mantelshelf and a small hole near the ceiling, at a point where a picture-nail had been driven.3 The ants, when first observed, were not very numerous, but gradually increased in number, until on some days the little creatures formed an almost unbroken procession, issuing from the hole at the nail, descending the wall, climbing the vase directly below the nail, satisfying their desire for water or perfume, and then returning. The other vase and tumbler were not visited at that time.

As I was just then recovering from a long illness it happened that I was confined to the house, and spent my days in the room where the operations of these insects attracted my attention.

Their presence caused me some annoyance, but I knew of no effective means of getting rid of them. For several days in succession I frequently brushed the ants in great numbers from the wall down to the floor; but as they were not killed the result was that they soon formed a colony in the wall at the base of the mantel, ascending thence to the shelf, so that before long the vase was attacked from above and below.

One day I observed a number of ants, perhaps thirty or forty, on the shelf at the foot of the vase. Thinking to kill them I struck them lightly with the end of my finger, killing some and disabling the rest. The effect of this was immediate and unexpected. As soon as those ants who were approaching arrived near to where their fellows lay dead and suffering, they turned and fled with all possible haste. In half an hour the wall above the mantelshelf was cleared of ants.

During the space of an hour or two the colony from below continued to ascend, until reaching the lower beveled edge of the shelf, at which point the more timid individuals, although unable to see the vase, somehow became aware of trouble and turned about without further investigation; while the more daring advanced hesitatingly just to the upper edge of the shelf, where, extending their antennæ and stretching their necks, they seemed to peep cautiously over the edge until beholding their suffering companions, when they too turned and followed the others, expressing by their behaviour great excitement and terror. An hour or two later the path or trail leading from the lower colony to the vase was almost entirely free from ants.

I killed one or two ants on their path, striking them with my finger, but leaving no visible trace. The effect of this was that as soon as an ant ascending towards the shelf, reached the spot where one had been killed, it gave signs immediately of great disturbance, and returned directly at the highest speed possible.

A curious and invariable feature of their behaviour was that when such an ant, returning in fright, met another approaching, the two would always communicate, but each would pursue its own way; the second ant continuing its journey to the spot where the first had turned about and then following that example.

For several days after this there were no ants visible on the wall, either above or below the shelf. Then a few ants from the lower colony began to re-appear, but instead of visiting the vase which had been the scene of the disaster, they avoided it altogether, and following the lower front edge of the shelf to the tumbler standing near the middle, made their attack upon that. I repeated the same experiment here with precisely the same result. Killing or maiming a few of the ants and leaving their bodies about the base of the tumbler, the others on approaching, and even before arriving at the upper surface of the shelf where their mutilated companions were visible, gave signs of intense emotion, some running away immediately and others advancing to where they could survey the field, and then hastening away precipitately.

Occasionally an ant would advance towards the tumbler until it found itself among the dead and dying, then it seemed to lose all self-possession, running hither and thither, making wide circuits about the scene of the trouble, stopping at times and elevating the antennæ with a movement suggestive wringing them in despair, and finally taking flight.

After this another interval of several days passed during which no ants appeared. Now, three months later, the lower colony has been entirely abandoned. Occasionally however, especially when fresh and fragrant violets have been placed on the shelf, a few “prospectors” descend from the upper nail hole, rarely, almost never, approaching the vase from which they were first driven away, but seeking to satisfy their desire at the tumbler. To turn back these stragglers and keep them out of sight for a number of days, sometimes for a fortnight, it is sufficient to kill one or two ants on the trail which they follow descending the wall. This I have recently done as high up as I can reach—three or four feet above the mantel. The moment this spot is reached an ant turns abruptly and makes for home; and in a little while there is not an ant visible on the wall.

James D. Hague

San Francisco, California, Feb. 26, 1873


The date is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to J. D. Hague, 3 April [1873]. The letter was published in Nature, 10 April 1873, pp. 443–4.
James Duncan Hague’s paper had been sent with his letter of 26 February 1873.
The ant Hague described was probably Monomorium pharaonis, the pharaoh ant (identification made by Brian Fisher, California Academy of Sciences).


"The following fact with respect to the habits of ants, which I believe to be quite new, has been sent to me by a distinguished geologist, Mr J. D. Hague [see 8788]; and it appears well worth publishing."

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Nature, 10 April 1873, pp. 443–4

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8853,” accessed on 19 May 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21