Anting by Squirrels and Other Animals

Happy 2014 everyone! With a new year comes a resolution to liven things up here at Wild About Ants.

What about squirrels rolling around on ants?

The video author calls this “anting.” Hum, do you see any evidence of ants?

Anting has long been described in birds. Birds may pick up the ants in their beaks and wipe their body with the ants’ bodies, which is called active anting or “self-anointing.” On the other hand (or wing), they may simply squat or lie on an anthill shaking their wings and tail to stir up the ants, a behavior which is called passive anting.

Why do birds expose themselves to ants? The most common suggestion is that the ants’ defensive chemicals help combat the birds’ parasites. Other possibilities are that the ant chemicals relieve the itch of molting. Some birdwatchers have even suggested anting may be addictive for birds.

Back to squirrels, when I looked into this further I found out Doris C. Hauser wrote an article in the Feb. 1964 Journal of Mammalogy (Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 136-138) called “Anting by Gray Squirrels” where she describes observing several gray squirrels digging around on and laying near ant mounds.

John T. Longino reports a case of “True anting by the capuchin, Cebus capucinus” in the April 1984 (Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 243-245) issue of Primates. In his literature review he also mentions A. H. Chisholm noticing anting in cats (for example, see this newspaper report from The Argus, October 23, 1954.)

Of course, humans are getting into the act, too. The Times of India reports in the December 8, 2013 article “Soap made from an ant hill? Try it out” mud from ant hills is used in rural India as a beauty treatment and now is being marketed as a soap additive. Okay, so it isn’t live ants yet, but are they far behind?

Yes, I doubt it, as well. I know there have definitely been times when I have gone to extremes to avoid being covered by certain kinds of ants.

Have you ever observed animals anting? What do you think of this behavior?

8 Replies to “Anting by Squirrels and Other Animals”

  1. Hello and happy 2014. In relation with anting I found a very old drawing in a french bestiary: the “Bestiaire d’amours” (XIII-XIV century). In that drawing a deer appears lying down on an anthill. On its body and near its legs some ants can be seen. Below the drawing the author wrote this leyend: “The deer lying on the anthill to renew its skin”. You can see the image with some comments in this entry of my ant blog:

  2. Pingback: Anonymous
  3. I’m an avid birder so am very familiar with birds anting. I’ve seen many species anting in Florida and at our farm in Kentucky, including American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, & Blue Jay. They pick up the ants in their bills and rub the ants over their feathers to get the formic acid on the feathers and skin (I presume), and sometimes they roll over a swarm of ants. But I was totally surprised this morning, when I discovered why my indoor (formerly outdoor) cat that I walk outside on a leash likes to rub her cheeks vigorously on the ground and eat what appeared to me to be bits of dried vegetation. She also rolls her body over the area while “talking” gleefully. This morning it dawned on me that she might be anting, so I looked carefully at the area where she was rubbing her cheeks on the broken up concrete by our old silo and seemingly eating bits of dried vegetation, and there it was–a line of tiny ants moving toward her. The ants scattered as her mouth and tongue touched them, but she appeared to be successful in eating some of them. She also repeatedly licked the ground where the ants apparently had been traveling before she came upon them. I presume she was licking up formic acid produced by the ants. I was so excited that she was actually anting that I didn’t think to fetch a vial to collect some of the ants so my husband could ID them to species. Yes, he’s an ant enthusiast, so we’ll now start collecting the ants that our cat uses for her anting to see if she has a preference for a particular species (probably not). Since she adopted us several years ago, we’ve treated her every month with a tick & flea medicine, so she’s free of both. But obviously that hasn’t suppressed her innate need to self medicate! I found wildaboutants because of searching online for info on cats anting, as we were unaware of any other observations of this behavior by cats. BTW, we have visited with Mark Deyrup at Archbold Biological Station because of my husband’s serious interest in ants.

  4. Thank you for the message. Cool to hear about your cat and also that you’ve visited Mark Deyrup. A visit to Archbold is on my bucket list.

  5. Like Laura, I was looking this up because a cat did it.
    So, I’ve always figured cats’ instinctive preference for strong smelling herbs (Catnip is their favorite but they’ll go for lavender and peppermint too, especially when bothered by fleas) took advantage of those herbs’ insect repelling properties. It would work the same way as the joke about not needing to outrun the bear, only the other hikers: you don’t want to be the only cat in the clowder, or the only fisher in the bayou, without insect repellent.
    Yesterday, after I found some nested buckets half buried in leaves and infested with ants, I knocked the ants out of them. Soon after, our cat headed straight for the spot and started acting like he’d found catnip, rubbing, kneading, and doing that you-want-to-pick-me-up-but-I-want-to-wrestle-your-hand thing. He was anting! I never knew cats anted.
    Has anyone ever checked their reaction to small amounts of formic acid?

  6. Thank you for sharing this story! I’m not sure whether anyone has formally studied this, but I’d love to learn more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.