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Ants Can Synchronize Group Movement & Individual Instructions

Ants prove time and again that size is not necessarily a liability. A new study has demonstrated that they can synchronise collective ability to individual initiative for heavy lifting. Researchers observed a group of ants modifying their direction without resisting upon an “instruction” from a self-proclaimed, short-term leader. The findings have been published in Nature Communications.


Paratrechina longicornis, the ant species used for the experiments. Photo credits: Alex Wild Photography.

Known for their intelligence, hard work and cooperation, ants have shown that small size basically means nothing. A new study has recently provided further insight into how ants constitute an intelligent community that work together in harmony.

The team of researchers found that a “leader ant” noticed that its group carrying a load was going off-course and thus sent out a subtle signal to them to change their direction: it tugged at a different direction and this was enough for the others to respond positively. At one tug, they all fell into line. Leadership done right.

“The individual ant has the idea of how to pass an obstacle but lacks the muscle power to move the load,” explained Ofer Feinerman, the study’s main author.

“The group is there to amplify the leader’s strength so that she can actually implement her idea,” he told AFP.

As if this was not amazing enough, the ants demonstrated yet another laudable trait: the ant which once took the lead gave his place to a new arrival which carries updated information 10 to 20 seconds later

“As far as we can tell, the scout is no different than the other ants,” Feinerman said by email.

“No one designates the leader, she — not he — designates herself because she has current knowledge about the correct direction.”

The trait of carrying loads in organised groups is also seen in humans: we enlist each other’s support to lift weights that are far beyond the weight of individual members. One of the challenges posed by this characteristic, though, is to strike a balance between conformity and flexibility, that is, there is a need to adhere to synchronised actions and simultaneously make room for the need to adapt as required. Feinerman explained that this is what keeps the ants together instead of them growing apart when pulling loads. The newly-discovered trait of responding to the “ant scouts” which carry information is shown to cancel the disadvantages that might arise with “behaviour conformism”.

The interaction between group and individual effort is demonstrated to be balanced among ants.

“While all the ants ‘row’ in the same direction that the boat is moving, the leader rows in the direction she knows to be correct,” said the author.


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