Thursday, December 16, 2004

Those Crazy Ants

On NPR's Morning Edition this morning, they had a story on ants. Apparently, ants leave behind pheremone trails as the explore, both to leave a trail for others to follow (think of wagon trains of ants going to a discarded food item) and to find their way back to the colony.

What has puzzled researchers is the fact that the pheremone trails have no way to mark direction. That is to say, if you are on your way home, following the pheremone trail, and you hit a fork, how do you know which way to go to get home? I guess ants don't have good enough memories to remember which path led home, or they wouldn't need the trail in the first place. Also, I suppose another ant might have made a new fork since our ant passed and confuse the issue.

Well, it turns out to be very simple, with no roadway arrows required: Ants on the way back to the colony always take the path with the smaller angle. That's how they know which way leads home without some sort of sophisticated pheremone that smells differently one way than the other or some other complicated method of navigation.

Apparently, discoveries like this about ants, which are basically little machines that are good for little individually but capable of a lot collectively, help with stuff like control systems and neural networks, and this discovery will expand those fields.

Just thought it was interesting.


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