A study which appeared in the journal Nature Communications explains how ants manage to carry pieces of food which are a lot bigger than them. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel have discovered that the ants have a perfect balance between conformism and individuality.
For the investigation the researchers used the longhorn crazy ants, which are a very common species. Their name comes from the fact that these ants dash about and change their direction frequently apparently with no aim. But it seems that their behavior is not as random as it may seem.
The researchers analyzed videos which followed the ants while they carried oversized food items such as cheerios. The findings indicate that 90 percent of the time the ants were organized and pulled in the same direction, whereas in the other 10 percent they showed just the right amount erratic behavior. So overall the insects cooperated, but their erratic individualism was also important because this enable an ant which might have new information to join the team and change the direction if needed.
In addition it seems that a single ant is able to lead the group back home. They do not need to use language. The leader only needs to pull towards another direction and thus the rest of the ants are notified that they must change directions. The leader is not designated; it becomes a leader simply because it has new information about the right direction.
The lead author of the study psychiatrist Ofer Feinerman from the Weizmann Institute of Science explained:
This leader that comes along, she doesn’t have to introduce herself, she doesn’t have to be stronger than the rest – she just has to pull in the correct direction.The only communication in the system is the forces that they feel through the object.”
Such scouts, as Dr. Feinerman calls them, provide the navigation, while the overall number of ants etablished how fast the item gets tranported. Besides humans very few creatures were reported to be able to organize in such a way.
Professor Nigel Franks who leads the Ant Lab at the University of Bristol described the study as an exquisite piece of work and said that it was a great example of how ideas from physics can be applied in biological matters.
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