For such small and seemingly insignificant organisms, ants have often made their way into folklore, films, poems and other creative works. The minute creatures have attracted attention over hundreds of years for how well they organize themselves, despite obstacles at every turn. In consideration of their organizational skills, it is easy to marvel at how effortlessly they are able to construct shelter, expand colonies and gather food. A study published on Tuesday within the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlighted the fact that ants have the ability to collect information more efficiently than Google.
In a large number of instances, people enjoying the outdoors will come across anthills, where a sizable collection of ants is milling about and working on the nest or gathering information. What may be less common to find is a single ant, venturing out on its own. Watching most ants remain close to their shelter makes it confusing to see an ant without a companion. But what the study revealed is that a lone ant may be a scavenger that has traveled a long radius from the nest, in search of food.
The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Beijing University of Posts and Communications teamed up for this study, finding that ants’ food gathering methods are much more systematic than many scientists have ever given them credit. The respective institutions harnessed the power of algorithms to capture just how knowledgeably ants approach the need for food.
It has long been established that ants need to leave the nest for food, but what did not appear as logical until this study was how ants disperse themselves unilaterally from the nest. Ants use this as a sort of shotgun approach to lessen the chances that they could miss a source of food, and to cut down on time spent bringing food back to the nest once it is found. The way that ants end up being able to collect information more efficiently than Google, however, is through their homing methods.
Once a source of food is discovered, the ant that located it will test it to make sure it is suitable for itself. It will then bring a sample back to the colony for other ants to taste, leaving a trail of pheromones as it returns. Pheromones are chemicals released by an animal that attract more animals from its species. Thus, as more ants return to the nest with food samples and respective pheromone trails, the ants provide each other with temporary paths back to the food sources.
The ants do not have substantial amounts of time to act on the trails however, as pheromone trails do not last very long. Regardless of this, as more ants cross paths with the existing pheromone trails, they are led to the food source, where they can procure more of the food to take back to the colony.
The genius of the ants’ capabilities as well as execution lies in the fact that the pheromone trails draw in more ants, which leave more pheromone trails, which bring in more ants, as the pattern strengthens. Within a short time, this leaves the colony of ants with an optimal, self-reinforcing path by which to obtain food, and frees up more ants to attend to other needs of the colony.
Another facet of food collection that further demonstrates the organizational prowess of ants is how they delegate tasks. Older ants are given the task of being the first in line to look for new food sources, as their brains have collected more information about the surroundings of the nest than the younger ants. Sending the ants with more experience out sooner allows the colony to gather the most food possible at one time, as the older ants are likely already heading in the direction where they have previously located food.
As for Google, the world-renowned search engine uses keywords, site popularity levels and a number of other factors to gather relevant information when a user types in a word or a phrase. Millions of results can be presented to the user, but as many Google users know, phrase or full sentence searches do not always bring back the desired link. The way in which ants seem to have a leg up on Google’s methods is that they send out dozens or hundreds of ants on every search, employing all of the resources that are available to them at the time.
As this study shows, regardless of how disorderly the shotgun approach may appear at first, it ends up yielding great rewards to ant colonies. The simple reality is that a wide launch is narrowed down as soon and effectively as possible, and thanks to biology, it rapidly becomes reinforcing with no further effort. As ants collect information more efficiently on popsicles, hot dogs and ice cream this summer, and bring them back to their respective colonies, engineers at Google may be attempting to improve the company’s search engine to a level that can match nature.
Opinion by Brad Johnson