Antsy for Answers

An areal shot of a group of black ants on red dirt.

Ants! They’re tiny, they’re mighty, they’re – master coders?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

How are hungry ants like scientists? Check out an anthill! Here ants wander randomly, searching until they reach their target. Scientists might also try a million paths before that EUREKA moment! But could ant behavior help speed up the solution?

Enter Edmund Hunt and colleagues from the University of Bristol. They think that an ANT-ser lies in ant foraging behavior.

The ants’ secret? They leave behind scent trails for other ants. It’s like a Google search history for already explored areas!

The researchers studied movements of ants exploring a fixed space. They noticed that wiping away the scent trails made ant teams less efficient at covering ground.

Then the team created a computer search program that remembers past tries the same way ants do. They found that, compared with previous, more random methods, the new searches reached conclusions MUCH faster! Less ants-y waiting for answers!

So next time you get lost in a video game…just follow the ant trail!


Reference: Hunt, E.R., Franks, N.R., & Baddeley, R.J. (2020). The Bayesian superorganism: Externalized memories facilitate distributed sampling. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 17.