Thursday, January 12, 2006

Teacher Ants!

Social insects make me smile.

It turns out that ants (social insects) can serve as teachers. A leader ant will head out in front of a follower and periodically stop and wait for the follower to catch up. When the follower is ready to continue, it touches the leader ant with its antennae a number of times. At that point, the leader takes off again and pauses later (repeating this stop-and-go process over and over again). This ends up "teaching" the follower the path to food (or some other resource).

The followers then can take the same path on their own, and they themselves can teach it to others.

This is reproducible in the laboratory. Apparently when the leader stops you can tap it with artificial antennae in the same way and it will take off by itself.

Now, with large groups of ants, they can use pheromone trails and other methods to spread information more quickly. However, this method works great for one-on-one interactions and the follower ant builds a memory of the path (rather than just following a trail).

Isn't that neat?

Teacher Ants Show Students the Way to Food
Ants exhibit myriad complex social behaviors despite possessing only teeny brains. Now new research suggests that teaching should be added to the list of ant accomplishments.

Nigel Franks and Tom Richardson of the University of Bristol in England studied so-called tandem running in Temnothorax albipennis ants, during which two ants run a course between nest and food with various stops and starts en route. The researchers found that the lead ant who knows the way to the food slows down as the follower familiarizes itself with the route and will not proceed until the follower taps it on the back. The two also maintain a variable but matching speed and distance over time.

"This behavior is beautifully simple," Richardson says. "If one experimentally removes the follower and taps the leader with a hair at a rate of two times per second or more, the leader will continue."

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments: