Buried Coconut Clears the Air for Ant Species
New research published in American Entomologist has put to rest the debate over the world’s stinkiest ant. Blue cheese, cleaning solution, coconut or rancid butter – what does Tapinoma sessile “the odorous house ant,” really smell like?
Researchers use smell to identify ants, and with over 1,000 species in North America alone, it’s helpful to distinguish their signature odors. Research was conducted at the North Carolina BugFest, with 143 willing volunteers (people, not ants). Participants were asked to crush an ant, then identify its smell from a short list of options including “other” (the list included rancid butter, blue cheese, and rotten coconut).
Blue cheese was the winner, with 38 percent of ant-sniffers calling this the dominant smell. To test the accuracy of this consensus, scientists then compared the actual compounds within blue cheese and rotten coconut to the chemical compounds from the ants.
It wasn’t easy to find rotten coconut, so one intrepid researcher buried coconut in his yard for a week, then dug it up and took a whiff.
“I went down and I dug it up… It was clear the coconut was covered in a blue-green mold as soon as I dug it out of the ground. I held it up to my nose, I smelled it, and ‘Yeah, so now it smells like blue cheese.’”
Clint Penick, innovator in coconut burial, also sent a sample to his collaborator, Dr. Adrian Smith. Together, they determined that the same compounds that give blue cheese its distinctive smell are also found in rotten coconut.