Ant Antics: How Ants Cooperate to Carry Cargo

Ant Antics: How Ants Cooperate to Carry Cargo

Ants are unusual among animals because of their social behavior: living in huge colonies, cooperation is crucial as they tend young, build nests and forage. The authors of a new PLOS Computational Biology study were interested in how ants cooperate during the specific challenge of carrying objects around obstacles.

Jonathon Ron from the Weizmann Institute, Israel, and colleagues tracked groups of foraging ants in a laboratory as they attempted to carry large rings covered in tasty cat food along a trail back to their nest. In the experiment, the researchers blocked the path with an obstacle with a narrow opening and observed how the ant groups reacted.

They found that the ants did not choose a single strategy to attempt to navigate the obstacle. Instead, they consistently attempted two different ways to take the cargo to the nest: trying both to squeeze the load through the narrow opening, and to carry it the long way around the obstacle. Attempts to squeeze through occurred when the conflict over which way to go was dominated by individuals who were familiar with the usually navigable trail. When individuals who did not know the trail dominated, the group would instead perform an “off-road” detour to get around the obstacle.

The authors note their study provides evidence of how ants can consistently adopt two different strategies for navigating obstacles. The coexistence of alternative problem-solving strategies could have an evolutionary advantage in preventing ant groups from getting stuck, for example eternally trying to fit overly large cargo through a narrow gap.

Research Article: Ron JE, Pinkoviezky I, Fonio E, Feinerman O, Gov NS (2018) Bi-stability in cooperative transport by ants in the presence of obstacles. PLoS Comput Biol 14(5): e1006068.

Images Credits: Jonathan Ron, Ehud Fonio; Pixabay CC0


Beth works at PLOS as Journal Media Manager. She read Natural Sciences, specializing in Pathology, at the University of Cambridge before joining PLOS in 2013. She feels fortunate to be able to read and write about the exciting new research published by PLOS.

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