Monday, April 22, 2013

Ants, analog to digital

The secrets to the efficiency of ant societies have been revealed by making casts of their very elaborate colonies. Scientists in Brazil, for instance, poured 10 tons of concrete down the tunnels and chambers of leaf cutter ants and then excavated the labyrinth, which extended 26' below the surface and covered an area of 500 sq. ft. (PHOTOS HERE). The exercise revealed main routes and side roads, allowance for adequate ventilation, and rubbish sites and fungus gardens. Danielle Mersch and her colleagues at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland took the next step, tagging every single worker in 6 colonies of carpenter ants, so that they could track them by computer. The unique barcode-like symbol on each of more than 600 individuals allowed them to record each ant's position twice per second (VIDEO HERE). Over 41 days, the researchers collected more than 2.4 billion readings and documented 9.4 million interactions between the workers, believed to be the largest-ever data set on ant interactions! Among other things, they found that the workers comprise 3 social groups that perform different roles and carry out their duties in different parts of the nest. In addition, the Swiss researchers discovered that the insects move from one task to the next as they age, the youngest nursing the queen and her young, the middle-aged cleaning the colony, and the elderly foraging for food. University of Arizona entomologist Anna Dornhaus comments, “The paper is a game-changer, in the size and detail of the data set that was collected. Different methods of automatically tracking animal behavior have recently been developed, and this is one of the first empirical studies that have come out as a result."

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