What do ants think of people

13.08.2018 14:05

What we can learn from ants and amoebas about coordination and cooperation

Sabine Ranke-Heinemann Press office
Australian-New Zealand University Association / Institute Ranke-Heinemann

Ants act without a defined head who allocates the work. As a matter of course, the individual ants take on the necessary tasks without a specific work assignment. They are even capable of doing complex farming. Scientists in Melbourne are of the opinion that we humans can take the ants' work organization as an example in order to relieve traffic and optimize factory processes. We also find an answer to the philosophical question about the organization of societies in the ants.

Imagine a busy street with slow traffic. And now imagine a sidewalk very close by, where hundreds of ants move very quietly in a row. While the motorists are foaming with rage and doing nothing else, the ants carry their food into the nest, lively work together and do their job.

Professor Bernd Meyer from the IT faculty at Monash University in Melbourne dedicates his working life to the ants and their collective decision-making skills. "The ants make pretty complicated decisions," he explains. "For example, the ants find the best sources of food and the quickest way to get there and back without logistics experts."

The insects are not particularly clever individually, but together they can coordinate their activities well. There is something we can learn from this. “The way ants organize themselves can give us an insight into how the processes in transport can run more smoothly and provide optimization approaches for factory processes.

Approach complex tasks

Ant colonies are sometimes compared to cities because a myriad of individuals are coordinating various complex work steps at the same time. The foraging team forms the breadcrumb column on the sidewalk, another team takes care of the offspring, while others, for example, build the ant's nest or defend it. Although the tasks are coordinated very efficiently, “nobody sits there who assigns the tasks and says 'you two are going in that direction and you three are taking care of the defense,'” says Professor Meyer.

“The ants all make individual, smaller decisions that only relate to their immediate surroundings. There is no one who keeps an eye on the big picture and yet the colony has an overview as a kind of super-organism. They manage to allocate the workforce as a colony in such a way that all needs and requirements can be met. "Up to now, nobody really knows how this actually works with the ants.

Professor Meyer is also studying forms of mucus "that are not social insects, but still work together." "The fascinating aspect of these amoebas is that they live as colonies of separate cells for a certain period of life, and then suddenly fuse. This new large cell has several cell nuclei and then acts as a single organism.

Professor Meyer works with Associate Professor Martin Burd from the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, among others. Biologists and computer scientists look at the ants from different angles, but their research "ultimately merges completely", says Professor Meyer. "It doesn't work that the biologists first do their experiments and then pass on their data so that we can then analyze them. It's all done collectively - and that's the exciting part. It takes a while to find a common language, but then you get to the point where the thinking mixes and a new conceptual framework is created made new discoveries possible in the first place. "

As a computer scientist, he is interested in "finding out the underlying mathematical principles" that control the behavior of the ants. "We create an algorithmic view of the way in which the ants interact. This is the only way we can unravel the complex behavior of the ants, "says Professor Meyer.

Behavior model

Scientists track down individual ants and then create a behavioral model for tens of thousands of individuals over a long period of time. They try to replicate what they see in an experiment, check whether their model matches the data collected and then use the model to predict and explain behavior that has not yet been observed.

When examining the pheidole megacephala ant, for example, Meyer found that when they find a source of food, they not only converge there like many other species, but also reconsider their decision when new information becomes available. “What if we give them a better source of food? Many species would ignore this completely because they are unable to adapt to these changes. However, the pheidole megacephala would actually redirect. "

The colonies could only choose the better alternative because individual ants had made a bad decision. So individual mistakes were important for the group as a whole in order to improve decisions. "Our models had predicted this even before we found a species that actually does it," explains Professor Meyer.

“If the individual doesn't make mistakes or act inappropriately, groupthink takes over and suddenly everyone is doing the same thing. You can formulate it mathematically and it looks like you can apply the mathematical formula to other systems - completely different systems, including human groups. "

More than 12,500 ant species have been identified so far, but it is believed that around 22,000 exist. "Ants are incredibly successful ecologically," says Professor Meyer. "They are practically everywhere. That is exactly one of the interesting aspects - why are they so adaptable?"

Professor Meyer also studies the leaf cutter ant and the Asian weaver ant. Leaf cutter ants eat the leaves that don't bring themselves back to their nest - they use them for agriculture. “They feed them to a mushroom that they grow and use that as a food source. Again, this is a very complicated process to organize. "Asian weaver ants are important for mango production in Queensland, where they are used for natural pest control. According to Professor Meyer, the ecosystem services provided by ants are often underestimated.

Important roles

Professor Meyer is also studying bees, which are known for their important role in plant pollination, but "ants are also a key element of the ecosystem." Ants, for example, recycle the soil. They scatter seeds and can increase agricultural productivity. It is not yet known how ants (like bees) are affected by environmental toxins and climate change.

“That's one of the things we try to understand. If the pressure from the environment increases, what happens to the ants in Queensland that are used to produce mango, for example? Will we then see the same effects as with the bees? "The ants in a colony usually all have the same mother. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for the individual ants to sacrifice themselves for the good of the colony; ants are absolute team players.

People have a much greater need for their own ability to act and independence. However, ant-like organizations can sometimes help in the human environment. Professor Meyer says many industries improve their operations by using algorithms derived from the ants' behavior. This includes, for example, the Australian wine industry.

The ants fascinate people. He thinks the reason for this lies in the ants' busy, task-oriented life, which raises a “bigger philosophical question. How are societies organized? How can we achieve a society in which individuals work together for the common good without dictating rules from above? "

Additional Information:

Ranke-Heinemann Institute / Australian-New Zealand University Association
Press office Friedrichstr. 95
10117 Berlin
Email: berlin (at) ranke-heinemann.de
Tel .: 030-20 96 29 593


Bernd Meyer
Professor, Data Science, School of Information Technology
Email: Bernd.meyer (at) monash.edu

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