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Science

Tracking Whole Colonies Shows Ants Make Career Moves 47

Posted by Soulskill
from the executive-in-charge-of-carrying-pieces-of-leaves dept.
ananyo writes "Researchers have tagged every single worker in entire colonies and used a computer to track them, accumulating what they say is the largest-ever data set on ant interactions. The biologists have found that the workers fall into three social groups that perform different roles: nursing the queen and young; cleaning the colony; and foraging for food. The insects, they found, tend to graduate from one group to another as they age. By creating heat maps to represent the workers’ positions, Mersch's team showed that nurses and foragers stick to their own company and seldom mix, even if the colony’s entrance and brood chamber are close together (abstract). Cleaners are more widely dispersed, patrolling the whole colony and interacting with both of the other groups. 'The ants can probably be in any place within their enclosures in less than a minute,' says Mersch, 'but even in these simple spaces, they organize into these spatial groups.'"
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Tracking Whole Colonies Shows Ants Make Career Moves

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  • Specializations (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 19, 2013 @11:10AM (#43493775)

    Specializations. Interesting. Does that imply that ants can learn? One would think they were just a bundle of instinct. Maybe not.

    • You've obviously never watched Antz [imdb.co.uk]

    • Re:Specializations (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Friday April 19, 2013 @11:39AM (#43494145)

      Specializations. Interesting. Does that imply that ants can learn?

      Specialization does not necessarily mean learning. They could just switch between different sets of instincts. Whether they learn seems like a straightforward hypothesis to test: if it is true, then more experienced foragers should gather more food.

      I thought it was already well known that ants switch tasks as they age. I remember reading years ago that the oldest ants are the foragers because they were the most likely to die from predation or exposure, and that was at a lower cost to the colony since they were approaching the end of their expected lifetime anyway.

      • by SQLGuru (980662)

        The article didn't address who does the security when I stomp on the mound......or when another mound invades.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Learning has been well documented in arthropods.

        Habituation, conditioning, and trial+error learning are all to be expected.

        What hasn't been documented to my knowledge is any insight learning.

      • Honeybees also switch tasks as they age, similar to ants. The bees that go outside the hive tend to be the oldest.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by regular_guy (1979018)
          Not always the case. A study had shown that foragers can switch back to nurses due to switching gene sets (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22273-worker-bees-reboot-brain-genes-to-suit-the-task.html) . So while the nursing bees often keep the role for 2-3 weeks, there is a possibility of seeing older nursing bees due to this switch-back in roles.
    • Specializations. Interesting. Does that imply that ants can learn? One would think they were just a bundle of instinct. Maybe not.

      It's like emergent behavior in a particles-and-fields system. Whether that qualifies as learning is a philosophical question I'm unable to answer.

    • Re:Specializations (Score:4, Interesting)

      by TFAFalcon (1839122) on Friday April 19, 2013 @12:43PM (#43494861)

      Just the opposite. The ants often switch jobs when they age and do not specialize in a single job.

      And if you think about it, it must be a pretty good strategy for the hive. Send the old ants on the dangerous jobs - even if they die you haven't lost a worker with a long and productive life in front of them.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      They definitely can learn [wikipedia.org].

    • They are studying the wrong creatures. They should focus on Sandkings. They're infinitely more interesting.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandkings_(novelette) [wikipedia.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 19, 2013 @11:19AM (#43493871)

    Tired of your dead-end role in the colony? Frustrated that your boss doesn't respect your contribution to the brood? Dice for Ants has over 16 billion job openings for drones just like you. Make the jump today to get the skills to be your own queen. Network with other ambitious insects like yourself. Get advice from others who have made the leap from cleaner to forager.

  • by pr0nbot (313417) on Friday April 19, 2013 @11:21AM (#43493901)

    Apparently (google tells me) ants live about 90 days. Let's say that humans live about 90 years. In that case, saying "The ants can probably be in any place within their enclosures in less than a minute..." equates to "The humans can probably be in any place within their enclosures in roughly 6 hours, but even in these simple spaces, they organize into these spatial groups."

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Maybe they need stronger spacial memory to keep track of who has been feed and who needs feeding. Being a cleaner would seem to require less effort, just pick up trash wherever you see it and dump it in one of the trash dumps. A forager would seem to require even less effort; go out and look for stuff and don't come back until you find something worth taking back, it's a bonus if you come back alive.

    • Distance is more interesting than a time scaling of a life or travel time. I would be more interested in how big the ants are in comparison to the distance or a population density or visual distance. And this is basically a 2D space, it would be more interesting if given more room.
  • by xxxJonBoyxxx (565205) on Friday April 19, 2013 @11:22AM (#43493919)

    >> workers move between jobs as they get older — nurses are generally younger than cleaners, which are younger than foragers.

    So...the workers generally try to further and further away from the queen as they get older? I'll bet there's a Red-Green bit we could reference here.

  • Yawn (Score:5, Funny)

    by rodrigoandrade (713371) on Friday April 19, 2013 @11:27AM (#43493999)

    Wake me up when ants start building Mutalisks...

  • The old ants know they either have to go to Carousel or leave the colony!
    • The old ants know they either have to go to Carousel or leave the colony!

      [spoiler]all except one ant, who ruins it for the rest of them....[/spoiler]

  • about applicants not having experience. This is the way it should be done: start at the bottom, learn what you need, then move up in the world using your gained experience.

    Now compare that to human employers where you're supposed to magically know everything about how an employer works despite never having worked for them.

    Further, unlike humans, the ants don't care about how old the ant is. All they care about is if you can do the job.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Sduic (805226)
      Unfortunately, ant colonies are rife with nepotism. Also, instead of centralising their information, they appear to work entirely upon hearsay and rumour. Basically, if you do find yourself a position in an ant colony, don't expect to enjoy it.
      • Basically, if you do find yourself a position in an ant colony, don't expect to enjoy it.

        No matter which position you find, you can expect it to be somewhat painful, unless you're an anteater.

  • and from the Wiki bee article, seem to live rather similar lives:

    "For the first 10 days of their lives, the female worker bees clean the hive and feed the larvae. After this, they begin building comb cells. On days 16 through 20, a worker receives nectar and pollen from older workers and stores it. After the 20th day, a worker leaves the hive and spends the remainder of its life as a forager."

    Most of the other related general in the bee/ant world also lead similar lives. So I wonder what the researchers wer

    • by el jocko del oeste (2450190) on Friday April 19, 2013 @01:22PM (#43495211)

      I haven't read the actual paper yet, but we can draw a few tidbits from the news article and the abstract...

      It's not that the results were unexpected or overturn long held theories about ant behavior. But the work produced a couple of interesting and valuable outcomes. First, they demonstrated that they could effectively tag and track ants in an experimental setting. That by itself is notable--it opens up a lot of interesting research opportunities. Second, they analyzed the tracking data to quantify the spatial and temporal interactions of the ants, and in particular, between functional groups of ants. They were able to determine that there were significant cleaner-nurse and cleaner-forager interactions but limited nurse-forager interactions. Not just in a general kind of way, but with real measurements.

  • fails to address is will the ants have to come in saturday to finish up the TPS reports or not?
  • by santax (1541065) on Friday April 19, 2013 @12:45PM (#43494893)
    Or are the young ones just getting extra protection because they are more valuable for the colony at that point? When they get older they might become less valuable for the tasks that involve nursing and get demoted to cleaning. Even later, they get to go outside! How nice! From the safety from the center of the colony to the front in afghanistan doesn't sound like a promotion to me. I am not saying they are wrong, I am saying this is so interesting that it deserves a really good extended study to find the real reason for this behavior.
  • by locopuyo (1433631) on Friday April 19, 2013 @01:27PM (#43495271) Homepage
    We should hold off judgment until we have analyzed more colonies. This could be the North Korea of ant colonies and the others could have more affluent and free societies.
  • Around here, the ants regularly engage in career moves that confuse onlookers. Some fight and claw their way up to the front of the log, only to find that not only is it merely a twig, but alas, they aren't really driving any of it at all.

    Then they set their sights on driving the bigger log.

    Rinse and repeat, until squashed, poisoned, or lost in the Diaspora.

  • Younger ants don't. It's the opposite of humans. :/

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