Scientists have long studied and admired ants for their remarkable social organization. These tiny insects can accomplish remarkable feats of engineering, building and transportation of foodstuffs due to their amazingly efficient organization of labor with no central leadership.
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A team of researchers in the U.S. from several institutions conducted an experiment with ants by sending some to the International Space Station. The entomologists wanted to know how the ants would adapt their foraging activities to compensate for the lack of gravity. The research team reports in its paper that the ants showed a remarkable degree of adaptability and tenacity in carrying out their searching activities in zero gravity.
More on the ants in space experiment
Of note, scientists still do not really understand how ants work together as a unit to accomplish their goals. Ants have no central leader, yet different ants fill different roles and everything that needs to happen to build and maintain a colony gets done. Entomologists do know that ants communicate by smelling antennae, or chemicals left behind by other ants, but do not really know how they ants all know what to do.
The researchers on this project hoped observation of ants dealing with zero gravity might help in understanding how the tiny creatures organize themselves.
The experiment involved a group of ants starting off in a box as a nest. A door would eventually open to permit the ants access to new territory—they were filmed as they wandered in and began searching. In watching the video, the scientists highlighted that the ants were far less efficient than ants under the same conditions back on Earth.
For example, the ants spent a lot of time simply trying to cling to walls, and quite often found themselves slipping and hanging in the air until they found something they could grab onto to bring them back to their task area. The net result of weightlessness was less territory searched and taking longer to find resources.
While the researchers did not find out much more about how ants communicate to work so efficiently, they did learn some things about ant foraging behaviors may help other scientists to develop better computer software for programming robots to do related tasks.