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Not diligence but specialisation explains the success of ants
Colonies of ants appear to be enormously successful. This is not the result of their proverbial diligence, but the way in which they organise their work: each ant group has its own task within the colony in which it has specialised. In the meantime, the colony ensures that they are successful as a whole, thanks to extremely good lines of communication (with direct contact and pheromones)… At Menzing we had never considered that we might be so engaged in reading a biologist’s research.
A type of ant found in the North African Steppes, the Camponotus fellah, were used for the experiment. They are large ants that can grow to be eighteen millimetres in size. This facilitates the provision of each ant in the colony (of approximately 200) with a QR code so that the behaviour of each individual ant can be tracked 24/7 in a laboratory setting. Almost 2.5 billion positions and more than nine million interactions were recorded. From these interactions three groups of ants emerged that had contact primarily with their own group. These groups appeared to comprise working ants who fulfilled the same tasks: nurses, food gatherers and cleaners. Specialists.
Ants communicate with each other using pheromones, touch and sound. The scientists investigated how quickly a new incident was disseminated throughout the colonies. They did this in a simulation through giving a random ant a message. Each contact with other ants represented the passing on of news. According to the calculations, within an hour 89 percent of the colony was informed. This communication, too, is essential for the success of the group. The researchers are aware that there are reservations about the set-up of such an experiment. But they concluded that the key to the ingenious organisation of the ant colony is the specialisation of the insects. Ants know their place and behave as such. They are not generalists but specialists who, thanks to their good communication, know how to complete tasks together.
Sounds familiar to us.