Learning allows animals to respond to changes in their environment within their lifespan. However, many responses to the environment are innate, and need not be learned. Depending on the level of cognitive flexibility an animal shows, such responses can either be modified by learning or not. Many ants deposit pheromone trails to resources, and innately follow such trails. Here, we investigated cognitive flexibility in the ant Lasius niger by asking whether ants can overcome their innate tendency and learn to avoid conspecific pheromone trails when these predict a negative stimulus. Ants were allowed to repeatedly visit a Y-maze, one arm of which was marked with a strong but realistic pheromone trail and led to a punishment (electroshock and/or quinine solution), and the other arm of which was unmarked and led to a 1 M sucrose reward. After circa 10 trials ants stopped relying on the pheromone trail, but even after 25 exposures they failed to improve beyond chance levels. However, the ants did not choose randomly: rather, most ants begun to favour just one side of the Y-maze, a strategy which resulted in more efficient food retrieval over time, when compared to the first visits. Even when trained in a go/no-go paradigm which precludes side bias development, ants failed to learn to avoid a pheromone trail. These results show rapid learning flexibility towards an innate social signal, but also demonstrate a rarely seen hard limit to this flexibility.

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