Ant Encounters

In her talk Ant Encounters, Deborah Gordon explained her work on ants, their colonies, and their behavior. She experimented with harvester ants in Southwest Arizona, examining their roles in the colony. The most discussed role was the forager and the rate at which they left the colony to search for food. The question that Gordon and her crew was trying to solve was what determined the rate at which ants left the colony to forage for food. What they discovered was that outgoing ants need the smell of other foragers combined with the smell of the food in order to leave the colony. They discovered this effect by changing the amount of food available to the foragers. The more food available, the shorter the search. When the search is shorter, the foragers return sooner, meaning that more ants will go out.

The amount of technology used to keep variables constant and to measure the number of ants and their location fascinates me. I would not have imagined it possible to count the number of ants in a colony without completely disturbing their home, nevertheless accurately. One of her partners, Martin Stumpe, created the program AnTracks to count the number of ants, even though they are constantly moving in unexpected directions past other ants. Furthermore, the scientists were able to use genetic variation in different ant colonies to identify which colonies were related and mapped all of the ants colonies in a region and showed all of their relationships. In her talk, Gordon described the ants’ behavior as “very messy” and “not deterministic.” Ants do not necessarily move with a set destination or purpose. It is hard to believe that humans could use numerical data to analyze their behavior so precisely when they themselves are so imperfect.

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