How ants pass on knowledge? Robots help find answers

For years we haven’t been able to find how ants pass on knowledge and information to each other. Scientists have now found a way to find that answer and to answer the question of how ants teach one another. Researchers have built a small robot!

The team built the robot to mimic the behaviour of rock ants that use one-to-one tuition, in which an ant that has discovered a much better new nest can teach the route there to another individual. Findings of the study confirm that the important elements of teaching in these ants are now understood because the teaching ant can be replaced by a machine.

Key to this process of teaching is tandem running where one ant literally leads another ant quite slowly along a route to the new nest. The pupil ant learns the route sufficiently well that it can find its own way back home and then lead a tandem-run with another ant to the new nest, and so on.

The researchers built a large arena so there was an appreciable distance between the ants’ old nest, which was deliberately made to be of low quality, and a new much better one that ants could be led to by a robot. A gantry was placed atop the arena to move back and forth with a small sliding robot attached to it, so that the scientists could direct the robot to move along either straight or wavy routes. Attractive scent glands, from a worker ant, were attached to the robot to give it the pheromones of an ant teacher.

The team found that the robot had indeed taught the route successfully to the apprentice ant. The ants knew their way back to the old nest whether they had taken a winding path or a straight one.

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