In praise of the crazy ant

In light of entertaining ant-related findings publicised recently, Ben McCluskey argues that studies on bizarre animal behaviour can provide researchers with opportunities for outreach that go beyond the norm.

Among this month’s many research headlines, one story that stood out concerned Paratrechina longicornis. Why? Well, first off there’s the brilliance of their common name: longhorn crazy ants. Great names aside, however, researchers based in Israel have made a fascinating discovery about how these ants interact. And it’s precisely the type of discovery that keeps many biologists, physicists and mathematicians so enthralled with the genus.

Even at a young age, most people have observed first-hand how groups of ants typically move. The orderly manner in which they follow one another’s lead can keep children amused for hours, but as the name of the longhorn crazy ant suggests, this species behaves differently to many others. Indeed, when a colony of this species toils to lift heavy pieces of food, many of the workers manically scamper around the main group, often wandering away from the task at hand before returning moments later, seemingly at random.

NOT SO CRAZY ANTS

This perceived randomness is, in fact, a subtle mechanism by which the ants navigate when the colony is attempting to transport food to their nest. In the new paper, published in Nature Communications, the Israeli researchers observed how a small degree of instability in each ant’s behaviour allows for the constructive introduction of new information. This information is used en masse to help successfully guide the direction of the food while most participants are engaged with the effort of lifting and pushing.

“The group is tuned to be maximally sensitive to the leader ants,” explained the paper’s senior author Dr Ofer Feinerman, a physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. Around 90 per cent of the time, they pull in the same direction; in the other 10 per cent they live up to their name and scurry and guide, taking on the role of scouts.

MULTIDISCIPLINARY DISSEMINATION

The complex behaviour of ants provides unending opportunities for improving understanding of decision making, complex systems, self-organisation and mathematical biology. As such, it is not only biologists with a keen interest in this area, but also physicists and computer scientists, among others.

While the crazy ant story did reach a number of broader media outlets such as National Geographic and WIRED, it struck me that such fascinating behaviour, which interests such a broad range of researchers, is often only explained through the lens of one specialism. Yet the reality is that multidisciplinary research is reaching maturity. For instance, The Ant Lab at my alma mater, the University of Bristol, is not only supported by biological funding sources but also by the broader academic and industrial computer science communities.

The video provided by Feinerman and his team effectively illustrates their observations. Perhaps other research institutes and scientific communities could start to think harder about joined-up communication efforts. A series of similar videos – with cutting-edge analysis and visual step-by-step explanation – could ably be used to illustrate a wide range of interactions that seem simple at micro level, but become dizzyingly complex at macro level. And the creation of multidisciplinary centres would surely make it simpler to fund such projects.

GO TO THE ANT

Of course, ants are not the only genus that capture the imagination, but alongside bees, they represent superlative model organisms for the public and researchers alike: they are both extremely familiar to people the world over, and yet, they also continue to astonish researchers by unlocking secrets about the world in areas ranging from population dynamics to neural networks.

As an atheist I don’t make a habit of quoting from the Bible, but there is certainly wisdom in this 3,000 year-old(ish) proclamation from Proverbs: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!”

Originally featured on www.internationalinnovation.com

Illustration by Orlagh Murphy