April 5, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Quick, Make Like an Ant

Ants deserve a lot of respect, despite being a nuisance in the kitchen.  The very fact they are so effective at bugging us is a testament to their ingenuity in foraging, communicating and organizing themselves into successful colonies.  We might just gain some valuable knowledge by watching them more closely.

  1. Foraging: Live Science says that ants forage haphazardly, but there might be a method to their madness.  Anyone who has watched ant scouts on the kitchen sink knows they seem to go this way and that without a plan.  Why don’t they use a more organized search?  An experimental physicist at Penn State Erie believes that an organized sweep might present the scout with unexpected obstacles.  “The beauty of a mathematical random walk is that it eventually visits all points in space if you walk long enough – and it always returns to its starting point.”  Even so, ants don’t waste time retracing their steps.  They also exercise their keen senses and communicate what they find with other ants.  Bottom line: it works for them.  Before long, an organized trail of thousands of ants is lined up.
  2. Trafficking:  Why don’t ants get into traffic jams?  The ants follow trails of pheromones that can persist for hours.  It’s like our highways.  Their long, single-file trains seem destined for pile-ups, but they never occur.  PhysOrg investigated the question.  An international team of researchers found that even “as ant traffic density increases, the traffic maintains the same average velocity as at low densities.”  Add more ants to the train, and the train doesn’t slow down.  Learning how they do that could help our own traffic flow.
        The scientists observed ant trains and also developed a mathematical model.  It appears they join platoons that move bumper-to-bumper at the same velocity.  These platoons merge into larger groupings that still maintain their velocity.  Human drivers tend to slow down when getting closer to one another.  The researchers intend to study the ant strategy further, but for now, they could only suggest that “perhaps evolution has optimized ant traffic flow.
  3. Farming:  Many ant colonies have elaborate relationships with aphids and fungus.  Erika Check Hayden said in Nature News that “Ant colonies could be key to advances in biofuels and antibiotics.”  The reason is that leaf-cutter ants have learned to protect the fungus they need from parasitic fungus invaders.  They have additional symbiotic relationships with certain bacteria that produce selective antifungal drugs.  Cameron Currie (U of Toronto) said that “These ants are walking pharmaceutical factories.” Their expertise may inform our scientists about the effective manufacture of antibiotics.
        Hayden added, “The ant colonies are also miniature biofuel reactors” because of the mass of leaves they transport into their fungus farms.  “Each year, ants from a single colony harvest up to 400 kilograms of leaves to feed their fungal partners.”  Scientists hadn’t figured out how the colonies digest the cellulose.  They would like to know, because “Researchers are keenly interested in better ways to break down cellulose, because it might allow them to make more efficient biofuels than those made from sugary foods, such as maize (corn).”  Using metagenomics, the researchers found additional symbiotic relationships with bacteria that perform the function.

The second and third articles made reference to evolution.  In addition to the comment in #2 about evolution optimizing ant traffic flow, in #3, “Currie suggests that the newfound bacterial and fungal enzymes might be efficient at digesting cellulose because they have evolved for centuries along with the ant-fungal symbiosis.”  Both statements were made as mere suggestions.

Evolution offered no real help to any of these stories.  It was just an afterthought, like some obligatory tie-in to the state religion.  The observational, empirical facts are that ant behavior is optimized.  Optimization is the work of intelligence, not chaos.  If we can apply our intelligence to use these findings toward the betterment of human society, then like Francis Bacon said, you will know good science by its fruit.

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