Previous research had shown that ants can lift loads that are many times the mass of their own tiny bodies, but a new study takes a deeper plunge into how they manage to do that. The secret? It is called team work.
A group of scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, in Israel, were curious to learn how exactly the tiny insects carried large chunks of food to their nests. For this purpose they filmed the ants with a slow motion camera while moving around a Cheerio which was more than twenty times their body weight.
Researchers learned that ants can combine their incredible lifting skills, team coordination, and leadership to get the job done. The footage showed that while the largest part of the ants was busy with the cheerio a small group called scouts scrutinized the terrain to tell the weightlifters where the way to their nest was.
Scouts also helped ants to stay on course because when they enter the team-work mode, or the “behavioral conformism” as researchers put it, they seem to be very much clueless to what happens around them.
‘A downside of behavioural conformism is that it may decrease the group’s responsiveness to external information,’
the research team noted.
Researchers also explained that ants need to sync with one another and “align their forces” whenever they need to carry a large load from one place to another. So, there is not very much space for personal creativity within the group.
By sacrificing their individualism, ants are able to act like a single unit and complete tremendous tasks, that would otherwise be impossible to reach. Yet, the tiny animals are equipped with an inner sense that helps them reach a fine balance between group conformism and individuality and be flexible whenever external circumstances require it.
The research team noted, however, that 90 percent of the time, the insects abandoned their individualism and acted like a group. Yet, the rest of the time they were able to make decisions on their own and swap roles with scouts. They could also guide the group on a new path when an obstacle blocked their way to the nest.
Dr Feinerman, lead researcher involved in the study, underscored that ants’ leaders do not have to prove themselves before the group or be stronger than the rest of their peers. They just need to be good at giving directions. And because ants cannot speak, they get directions through the forces they feel when holding the object.
Researchers said that they were thrilled to play with the mix of conformism and individuality in ants during their experiments. For that purpose, they tried different loads on ants to see what happened.
They learned that the bigger the load the stronger the conformism was because a greater load needs more ants to carry it so the forces they sense through the load are greater which compels the group to act even more as conformists.
Image Source: The Loop