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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.

  • 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: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.

  • 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 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.

  • Re:Specializations (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 19, 2013 @01:53PM (#43495545)

    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.

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