Rise of the Planet of the Ants

These days, we’ve been hearing quite a bit about a future in which humans find their dominion over the planet suddenly challenged by a group of super intelligent apes. This may make for an exciting Hollywood movie plot and some stunning visual effects, but I wonder whether we really need to look to humanoid science fiction in order to feel a shiver of doubt regarding our supremacy as a species.

Maybe all we need to do is to look at the world the way it is, a world that could well be called … The Planet of the Ants!

So, why is it that we should feel just a wee bit threatened by these small six-legged colonizers? Here are just a few reasons.

Quadrillions of Ants

Burning Man seems more crowded every year, doesn't it? (photo credit: Mehmet Karatay)

Like us, ants thrive just about anywhere, with the exception of Antarctica and a few isolated islands. Moreover, while there are approximately seven billion of us on the planet, conservative estimates put the number of ants at between one and ten quadrillion.1 That’s between 150,000 and 1,500,000 ants for each and every one of us. At the higher figure, this means that, if you were to put all the world’s ants onto a giant scale, they would weigh about as much as all of the humans on the planet put together.2 In fact, on average, it has been estimated that ants make up 15–20% of the terrestrial animal biomass on Earth (and more than 25% of the animal biomass in tropical regions).3

Our tendency as humans is to unquestioningly assume that we are far and away the most successful species that has ever been. If we take a step back, though, and simply consider the above numbers and the possibility that an animal’s success is most properly measured by the degree to which it has been able to thrive in various environments, perhaps we should already be feeling a pang of doubt about how incontestable our supremacy really is.

Ants Teach

While many animals are able to learn through imitation, ants are the only non-mammal known to engage in interactive teaching.4 In at least one species of ant, knowledgeable workers actively teach inexperienced nest mates where to find food through a process known as “tandem running,” in which the lead worker ant recruits an inexpert follower, and then makes sure that the follower stays on track, slowing down when it lags and speeding up when it gets too close.

Ants Learn

Ants are also able to engage in so-called latent learning, whereby they memorize information that they cannot use at once, but that may be useful later on – a behavior that’s been labeled as “planning.”5 Specifically, ants have been shown to be able to reconnoiter potential new living spaces, retaining information about relative desirability and tailoring their choices based on how urgently the need to move is.

Ants Can Learn to Navigate Mazes

Ants can be trained to remember multiple visual patterns presented in a fixed sequence, enabling them to navigate mazes.6 Ok, I’m not sure how exactly this leads to world domination, but it is definitely pretty cool.

Ants Practice Agriculture

Approximately 50 million years ago (and, accordingly, approximately 49+ million years before Homo Sapiens first arose as a species), ants began engaging in agriculture.7 Today, different species of leafcutter ants have adopted a purely agrarian lifestyle, feeding exclusively on gardens of fungus that they actively weed and cultivate, feed with fresh-cut leaves, and keep free from parasites and other pests.8 Here’s a video of some fungus farming ants:

Ants Engage in Animal Husbandry

Some ants raise aphids and feed on the sugary honeydew the aphids secrete when “milked” by the ants’ antennae. The ants are careful with their herds, keeping predators and parasites away, moving the aphids from one feeding location to another, and often bringing the aphids with them when they migrate.9 Here’s a video of ants tending to their aphids:

Ants Sometimes Enslave Other Ants

Certain types of ants are incorrigible slave-makers, raiding other colonies of ants and making captured slaves perform all routine tasks for their masters, including brood care, foraging, and even feeding slave-maker workers who are unable to feed themselves.10 Obviously, this isn’t a particularly attractive ant characteristic, but unfortunately it is one that may seem all too familiar to us humans.

Ants Use Tools

That’s right, tools. For example, some ants transport liquid and other non-solid food by dropping bits of leaves, sand or mud pellets or pieces of wood into a pool of food and, after the food has soaked in, using these objects to carry the meal back to their nests.11 Other ants use pebbles and soil pellets as weapons, dropping them on other ants or ground-dwelling bees, and then attacking and killing their competitors.12

Ants Build Cooperative Solutions

Hey, watch your foot! You're stepping on my head! (photo: Mlot, Tovey & Hu)

Ants, including army ants, are known to self-assemble into living bridges or ladders that allow them to cross gaps while on the move. When a single ant cannot make it across alone, other ants will successively grab on, steadily lengthening the bridge until it’s long enough to reach the destination. These structures, which can span significant distances and can even cross water, are then used by the rest of the colony and may stay in place for hours, until traffic dies down.13 Comparably, fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods. These rafts can be made up from anywhere from a few hundred to many thousand ants and are incredibly durable, allowing ants to sail for months at a time as they migrate.

Ants Have “Collective Intelligence”

The concept of collective intelligence has been hot lately, with a number of books and articles describing how groups can make collectively make sophisticated decisions and solve complex problems, even where each individual in the group knows very little, collectively a g (think of the analogy of each individual acting as a neuron, and the group as a whole acting as a collective brain). Collective intelligence is a topic unto itself, one we may address in future posts, but for now suffice it to say that if ants truly can make wise decisions as a group, we humans may really have something to envy!

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ResearchBlogging.org1Holldobler, B & E. O. Wilson (2009). The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 5. ISBN 0-393-06704-1.

2Ibid.

3Schultz, T. (2000). In search of ant ancestors Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 (26), 14028-14029 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.011513798.

4Franks, N., & Richardson, T. (2006). Teaching in tandem-running ants Nature, 439 (7073), 153-153 DOI: 10.1038/439153a; Richardson, T., Sleeman, P., McNamara, J., Houston, A., & Franks, N. (2007). Teaching with Evaluation in Ants Current Biology, 17 (17), 1520-1526 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.08.032.

5Franks, N., Hooper, J., Dornhaus, A., Aukett, P., Hayward, A., & Berghoff, S. (2007). Reconnaissance and latent learning in ants Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274 (1617), 1505-1509 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.0138.

6Chameron, S., Schatz, B., Pastergue-Ruiz, I., Beugnon, G., & Collett, T. (1998). The learning of a sequence of visual patterns by the ant Cataglyphis cursor Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 265 (1412), 2309-2313 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1998.0576; Reznikova, Z. 2008: Experimental paradigms for studying cognition and communication in ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News 11: 201-214.

7Schultz, T., & Brady, S. (2008). From the Cover: Major evolutionary transitions in ant agriculture Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (14), 5435-5440 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0711024105.

8Ibid.; Schultz, T. (1999). Ants, plants and antibiotics. Nature, 398 (6730), 747-748 DOI: 10.1038/19619.

9Nielsen, C., Agrawal, A., & Hajek, A. (2009). Ants defend aphids against lethal disease Biology Letters, 6 (2), 205-208 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0743; Styrsky, J., & Eubanks, M. (2007). Ecological consequences of interactions between ants and honeydew-producing insects Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274 (1607), 151-164 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3701.

10Pohl, S., & Foitzik, S. (2011). Slave-making ants prefer larger, better defended host colonies Animal Behaviour, 81 (1), 61-68 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.09.006; Brandt M, Foitzik S, Fischer-Blass B, & Heinze J (2005). The coevolutionary dynamics of obligate ant social parasite systems–between prudence and antagonism. Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 80 (2), 251-267 PMID: 15921051; Hölldobler, B. & Wilson, E.O., 1990. The Ants, Harvard University Press.

11FELLERS, J., & FELLERS, G. (1976). Tool Use in a Social Insect and Its Implications for Competitive Interactions Science, 192 (4234), 70-72 DOI: 10.1126/science.192.4234.70.

12See, e.g., Pierce, J. (1986). A Review of Tool Use in Insects The Florida Entomologist, 69 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3494748.

13Mlot NJ, Tovey CA, & Hu DL (2011). Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (19), 7669-73 PMID: 21518911.

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The Rational Ant

In a recent post I described how pigeons are better than humans at solving the Monty Hall problem and might therefore prove to be formidable competitors on Let’s Make a Deal. In this post, I have some good news and some bad news for those of you readers who are human (I make no assumptions in this blog). The good news is that I have yet to see any research showing that pigeons can triumph over humans at Jeopardy. The bad news is that the top two winners on Let’s Make a Deal could well end up being a pigeon and an ant, leaving the human contestants to go home with nothing more than an electronic version of the game (and perhaps a goat or two).

An article in ScienceNOW1 provides the backdrop:

Ants enjoying a nectar lunch on a sunny day (photo: Wikipedia)

Consider the following scenario: You want to buy a house with a big kitchen and a big yard, but there are only two homes on the market–one with a big kitchen and a small yard and the other with a small kitchen and a big yard. Studies show you’d be about 50% likely to choose either house–and either one would be a rational choice. But now, a new home comes on the market, this one with a large kitchen and no yard. This time, studies show, you’ll make an irrational decision: Even though nothing has changed with the first two houses, you’ll now favor the house with the big kitchen and small yard over the one with the small kitchen and big yard. Overall, scientists have found, people and other animals will often change their original preferences when presented with a third choice.

Not so with ants. These insects also shop for homes but not quite in the way that humans do. Solitary worker ants spread out, looking for two main features: a small entrance and a dark cavity. If an ant finds an outstanding hole–such as the inside of an acorn or a rock crevice–it recruits another scout to check it out. As more scouts like the site, the number of workers in the new hole grows. Once the crowd reaches a critical mass, the ants race back to the old nest and start carrying the queen and larvae to move the entire colony.

The article goes on to describe some research on ant decision-making conducted by Stephen Pratt, an Arizona State University behavioral ecologist, and Susan Edwards, of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. In this research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences2, Pratt and Edwards designed a series of possible nests for 26 ant colonies:

The duo cut rectangular holes in balsa wood and covered them with glass microscope slides. The researchers then drilled holes of various sizes into the glass slides and slipped plastic light filters under the glass to vary the features ants care about most. At first, the colonies only had two options, A and B. A was dark but had a large opening, whereas B was bright with a small opening. As with humans, the ants preferred both options equally: The researchers found no difference between the number of colonies that picked A versus B.

Then the scientists added a third option, called a decoy, that was similar to either A or B in one characteristic but clearly worse than both in the other (a very bright nest with a small opening, for example). Unlike humans, the ants were not tricked by the decoy, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Although a few colonies picked the third nest, the other colonies did not start favoring A or B and still split evenly between the two.

Ants can make better decisions because they take advantage of collective wisdom and do not “overthink” their options the way humans are prone to do. As Pratt noted in an article published in PhysOrg.com3, “Typically we think having many individual options, strategies and approaches are beneficial, but irrational errors are more likely to arise when individuals make direct comparisons among options.”

This research is particularly fascinating in that it poses a direct challenge to our core belief that we will always enjoy a large advantage over other animals when there is an intellectual way to solve a problem: sure, animals may have highly-evolved senses of smell, they may be fast, they may have impressive reflexes and their instincts may be powerful, but where we humans are able to harness our large brains, we will inevitably prevail.

In fact, though, we should hold off before patting ourselves on the back. As this (and other) research shows, we suffer from biases and flaws in the way we approach thought problems that can lead to irrational decisions and that can even put us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis other animals, including the birds and the ants.

Something to think about.

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1ScienceNOW, “Can’t Decide? Ask an Ant,” July 22, 2009.

2Edwards SC, Pratt SC. Rationality in collective decision-making by ant colonies. Proc Biol Sci. 2009 October 22; 276(1673): 3655–3661, published online 2009 July 22 (doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0981).

3PhysOrg.com, “Ants more rational than humans,” July 24, 2009.

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