Ant Encounters

It’s funny to think that well-accomplished scientists like Deborah Gordon and her colleagues spend the majority of their careers watching ants travel in and out of nests in the ground, placing little hydrocarbon-coated gel bubbles in their paths and recording how they behave. I don’t mean to belittle the work that these scientists do; I think it’s admirable and, in a way, miraculous that the state of humanity allows for scientists to study these seemingly inconsequential things—because they are anything but inconsequential.

The most interesting thing that I learned about ants during Gordon’s “Ant Encounters” lecture at the Chicago Humanities festival is that the “queen” ant of a colony is not a dictator. Ants in a colony behave according to peer-to-peer interactions between individual ants of the colony. For example, the rate at which ants leave the nest to forage is regulated by the rate at which ants return to the nest from foraging. Ants on standby know to leave the nest when their feelers detect the unique cuticular hydrocarbon secretion from a returning ant and its food particle. This contradicts the popular representation of ants in movies like *A Bug’s Life*, in which a hierarchical government controls the behavior of worker ants.

In reality, ant colonies function with a decentralized government. The behaviors of an individual ant are influenced by chemical signals sent from one ant to another via cuticular hydrocarbons. This is very interesting to me for two reasons. Firstly, I am fascinated by decentralized governments because they seem to be the epitome of peaceful civilization; if power can be evenly distributed among all constituents of a group, won’t the group be in its stablest state? Obviously, this isn’t a practical reality for large, real-word organizations like countries, but on a small-scale (in small businesses, or classrooms), I believe that, at the very least, a lesser disparity between the power of a leader and the power of a base leads to great things.

Secondly, it was interesting because the ants’ peer-to-peer network is very similar to the way in which the Internet functions: from server to server. The ants’ mode of communication is like the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), in that it regulates the rate at which information is transmitted by way of a bandwidth threshold. Before chemical signals sent from ant to ant can elicit a response, they must be “stacked” until they reach a threshold, effectively creating a gateway for the signal. Even further, the nature of ant colonies can also be compared to the functions of a brain, with its distributed network of neurons.

All of these things made Gordon’s lecture interesting to me. It’s always awe-inspiring to think of the many ways in which biology influences even the most artificial facets of the world.

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