The Hive Minds of Ant Colonies

Like a brain, an ant colony operates without central control. Each is a set of interacting individuals, either neurons or ants, using simple chemical interactions that in the aggregate generate their behaviour. People use their brains to remember. Can ant colonies do that?

Past events can alter the behaviour of both individual ants and ant colonies. Individual carpenter ants offered a sugar treat remembered its location for a few minutes; they were likely to return to where the food had been.

Another species, the Sahara Desert ant, meanders around the barren desert, searching for food. It appears that an ant of this species can remember how far it walked, or how many steps it took, since the last time it was at the nest.

A red wood ant colony remembers its trail system leading to the same trees, year after year, although no single ant does. In the forests of Europe, they forage in high trees to feed on the excretions of aphids that in turn feed on the tree.

Their nests are enormous mounds of pine needles situated in the same place for decades, occupied by many generations of colonies. Each ant tends to take the same trail day after day to the same tree.

During the long winter, the ants huddle together under the snow. The Finnish myrmecologist Rainer Rosengren showed that when the ants emerge in the spring, an older ant goes out with a young one along the older ant’s habitual trail.

The older ant dies and the younger ant adopts that trail as its own, thus leading the colony to remember, or reproduce, the previous year’s trails.

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