AUG 20, 2018 7:52 PM PDT

Worker Ants Intelligently Regulate Tunnel-Digging Efforts to Avoid Jams

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

At first glance, any burrows look just like tiny dirt mounds on the ground. But just beneath these inconspicuous little mounds are complex mazes comprised of narrow passageways that the ants use to get from point A to point B.

As you might expect, worker ants spend a lot of time digging these tunnels for their fellow ant brethren to navigate. But ant colonies almost never put their entire worker labor force to work at one given time to craft them.

Color-coded worker ants dig during a lab experiment.

Image Credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

Researchers have long wondered why ant colonies limit the number of worker ants that contribute to large digging projects at any given time, but a study published in the journal Science this week seems to bring some clarity to the matter.

The study involved careful analysis of worker ant behavior inside of an invasive red ant burrow. The researchers paid particular attention to how the worker ants responded to changes, and they made everything easier to follow by color-coding the worker ants’ abdomens with oil-based paints to discern them from one another.

"We painted the abdomens of ants with oil-based markers and by monitoring which ants showed up in the tunnel, we found that in fact about 30% of the ants in a group did about 70% of the work, because they came to the tunnel more often and they excavated more pellets," explained Prof. Daniel Goldman from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Physics.

"We wanted to know why only about 30% of ants were excavating, and to understand how basic laws of physics might be at work."

Related: These ants 'explode' to protect their colonies

It quickly became evident that the ants distributed the work unfairly among the workers. Most of the work was performed by just 30% of the colony’s worker ants, while the rest stood idly by and did practically nothing.

The findings prompted curiosity, and so the researchers began removing some of the colony’s most laborious worker ants from the workforce. Within almost no time at all, the colony filled those empty spots with replacement workers and sustained the near-30% worker threshold.

As it would seem, limiting the number of active diggers boosts productivity by preventing traffic jams in those confined burrows. If the ants had employed additional diggers, then worker ants would be getting in each other’s way, and this would slow things down substantially.

"We found a functional, community benefit to this seeming inequality in the work environment," Prof. Goldman added. "Without it, digging just doesn't get done."

Related: Beware of the dangers involving floating red ant colonies during floods

To validate their suspicions, the researchers employed computer models and task-oriented robots in the lab to better understand how this ‘lazy’ work ethic might perform under various circumstances. Surprisingly, even the robotic models delivered similar results. Having fewer workers reduced jam occurrences and maintained constant productivity levels.

As the researchers note, understanding these complex work processes is essential because it could translate well to other real-world applications. That said, additional research into the matter could benefit humanity in several ways.

Source: Georgia Tech via BBC, Science

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
DEC 16, 2019
Plants & Animals
DEC 16, 2019
Sloths Are More Interesting Than You Might Think...
The humble sloth – an animal that is renowned for its slowness. In fact, it’s considered one of the slowest mammals on the entire planet. But w...
DEC 23, 2019
Plants & Animals
DEC 23, 2019
The Captivating Mating Process of a Jumping Spider
When you’re a male jumping spider and you fancy finding a female to mate with, you might try your hand – or in this case paddle – at impr...
DEC 23, 2019
Plants & Animals
DEC 23, 2019
Brave Ant Explorers Engage a Termite Colony
Ants and termites have known their place as bitter rivals in the animal kingdom for more than 150 million years. Even today, as populations peak at some of...
JAN 07, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
JAN 07, 2020
Kiss and tell: new test for kissing bug disease
Here’s one Latin lover that you do not want to get kissed by: triatomines, or “kissing bugs”. Known locally as pitos or chipos, these ins...
JAN 05, 2020
Plants & Animals
JAN 05, 2020
Here's How Reindeer Stay Warm in Freezing Temperatures
Reindeer are some of Winter’s most iconic animals, but have you ever wondered how these spectacular creatures are able to withstand such frigid tempe...
JAN 17, 2020
Cardiology
JAN 17, 2020
Eating Walnuts Reduces Risk for Heart Disease
Walnuts may be more than just a tasty snack. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that they may also promote healthy gut bacteria, wh...
Loading Comments...