Magazine article Science News

Ants Swayed by 6-Legged Social Media: Colonies' Collective Choices Change When Scouts Say 'Follow Me'

Magazine article Science News

Ants Swayed by 6-Legged Social Media: Colonies' Collective Choices Change When Scouts Say 'Follow Me'

Article excerpt

Rock ants don't tweet, but they do recruit followers. And that social input can change the outcome of a group decision.

Colonies of Temnothorax albipennis ants decide as a group which craggy crevice to move into. They can even compare averages of a sort when choosing between nests that stay comfy for different proportions of time, an earlier study found. Yet such choices turn out differently if ants start leading nest mates to check out appealing sites, researchers say online February 8 in Behavioral Ecology.

"A small amount of social information can massively influence the outcome of a collective decision," says study coauthor Dominic Burns of the University of Bristol in England.

The Bristol lab of Nigel Franks has studied these small ants as examples of how social animals collectively make choices. In the basics of the process, "there are a lot of comparisons that can be made between collective decision making in humans and ants," Burns says. Analyzing decision making that evolution has honed in ants might spark insights into the human version, he says.

In picking nests, ants favor a dark crevice over one with light shining in. And narrow entrances appeal more than wide ones. Researchers have mixed those qualities to create ant nests with stable but "mediocre" conditions: unpleasantly constant light but an attractively narrow entrance. As an alternative to this stable site, researchers have offered colonies a changeable site with a not-great entrance and repeating 10-minute periods with some darkness and then bright light.

An earlier experiment with this setup found that ant colonies typically picked the stable site if the changeable site had only 2.5 minutes of darkness alternating with 7.5 minutes of light. But most colonies no longer preferred that stable site when the alternative was a better changeable site, with 7.5 pleasantly dark minutes out of each 10-minute period. …

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