Ants are capable of complex problem-solving strategies that could be widely applied as optimization techniques.
An individual ant searching for food walks in random ways, biologists found. Yet the collective foraging behaviour of ants goes well beyond that, as a mathematical study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals: The animal movements at a certain point change from chaos to order. This happens in a surprisingly efficient self-organized way. Understanding the ants could help analyze similar phenomena - for instance how humans roam in the internet.
“Ants have a nest so they need something like a strategy to bring home the food they find,” says lead-author Lixiang Li who is affiliated both to the Information Security Center, State Key Laboratory of Networking and Switching Technology, at the Beijing University of Posts and Communications, and to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “We argue that this is a factor, largely underestimated so far, that actually determines their behavior.”
Leaving a trail of scent
The Chinese-German research team basically put almost everything that is known about the foraging of ants into equations and algorithms and fed this into their computers. They assume that there are three stages of the complex feed-search movements of an ant colony: Initially, scout ants indeed circle around in a seemingly chaotic way. When exhausted, they go back to the nest to eat and rest. However, when one of them finds some food in the vicinity of the colony, it takes a tiny piece of it to the nest, leaving a trail of a scent-emanating substance called pheromones.
Other ants will follow that trail to find the food and bring some of it home. Their orchestration is still weak because there is so little pheromone on the trail. Due to their large number, the ants go lots of different ways to the food source and back to the nest, leaving again trails of scent. This eventually leads to an optimization of the path: Since pheromones are evaporative, the scent is the stronger the shorter the trail is – so more ants follow the shortest trail, again leaving scent marks. This generates a self-reinforcing effect of efficiency – the ants waste a lot less time and energy than they would in continued chaotic foraging.
Importantly, the researchers found that the experience of individual ants contributes to their foraging success – something also neglected in previous research. Older ants have a better knowledge of the nests surroundings. The foraging of younger ants is a learning process rather than an effective contribution to scout food, according to the study.
“A highly efficient complex network”
“While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I’m tempted to call intelligent,” says co-author Jürgen Kurths who leads PIK’s research domain Transdisciplinary Concepts and Methods. “The principle of self-organisation is known from for instance fish swarms, but it is the homing which makes the ants so interesting.” While the study of foraging behavior of ants is certainly of practical ecological importance, the study’s authors are mainly interested in understanding the fundamental patterns of nonlinear phenomena. “The ants collectively form a highly efficient complex network,” Kurths explains. “And this is something we find in many natural and social systems.”
So the mathematical model developed in studying the ants is applicable not only to very different kinds of animals which share just the feature that they have a home to return to, such as Albatrosses. It also provides a new perspective on behavioral patterns of humans in areas as diverse as the evolution of web services and smart transportation systems.
Article: Li, L., Peng, H., Kurths, J., Yang, Y., Schellnhuber, H.J. (2014): Chaos-order transition in foraging behavior of ants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Edition [DOI:10.1073/pnas.1407083111]
Weblink to PNAS where the article will publish any day in the week after 26 May: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407083111
For further information please contact:
PIK press office
Phone: +49 331 288 25 07
Jonas Viering | PIK Potsdam
Bolstering fat cells offers potential new leukemia treatment
17.10.2017 | McMaster University
Ocean atmosphere rife with microbes
17.10.2017 | King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST)
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
17.10.2017 | Life Sciences
17.10.2017 | Life Sciences
17.10.2017 | Earth Sciences