- Scientists Discover the Secret Behind Incredible Ant Towers
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It’s still preliminary, but Tovey speculates that this behavior may be translatable to tiny, self-organizing robots. “Very little is known so far about how to get a fleet of robots to cluster together into a three-dimensional structure,” he said. “In search-and-rescue applications and in exploration applications, this can be necessary. If a fleet of robots in a collapsed building needs to travel upwards, they might have to form a tower if the surface is too steep for them to climb individually. Similarly, robots exploring irregular terrain may need to cluster three-dimensionally to traverse obstacles. This study shows that very simple rules of individual movement can produce a useful structure.”
Scientists Discover the Secret Behind Incredible Ant Towers
As the tower grows taller, it also gets wider. The weight of the structure is supported by a wider cross-section at the base, allowing the ants to smartly distribute their weight. Each ant can withstand about 755 times its body weight without injury, according to the researchers, and they’re most comfortable supporting three ants on their backs. Any more than that and they give up, breaking their holds and scuttling away.
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Fire ants are famous for building massive ant towers, which allow them to escape or migrate into otherwise inaccessible areas. New research published in Royal Society Open Science details exactly how the ants build and maintain these perpetually sinking structures. They do so autonomously, in the absence of any centralized coordination. Instead, they rely on a simple set of rules that, at the group level, results in the construction of a tower. This hive-mind behavior may not help each and every ant involved, but it’s a classic case where the needs of the colony outweighs the needs of the one.
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This latest study is a follow-up to 7569 research, in which the Georgia Tech scientists demonstrated how ants use their bodies to build life rafts. The tower-building fire ants do a similar thing, searching for an empty spot in the structure to inhabit. Once an ant finds a space—typically near the top of the tower—it stops moving, allowing another ant to climb on top. And so on and so forth, the tower grows vertically. The Georgia Tech researchers documented these behaviors by setting up a lab experiment in which a colony of fire ants were placed in a dish, and forced to attempt an escape up a pole (the sides of the dish were laced in talc power to make it impossible for the ants to climb out).
To confirm the sinking behavior, Tovey and Hu contacted experts at at Lawrence Livermore Labs and other institutes. They were told that the technology did not exist to track individual particles in the interior of a three-dimensional object, at the time and size scales of ant-made towers, without killing the insects. But when they talked to an expert at Georgia Tech, they were referred to Daria Monaenkova, a postdoctoral researcher working in Dan Goldman’s physics lab. Monaenkova, who would subsequently become a co-author of the new study, happened to be working on an x-ray technology that would enable the researchers to peer inside the ant tower itself.
“Remember, the ants are decentralized,” said Tovey. “There is no one in charge of the others. And they can’t “see” the overall shape of the tower or what is happening outside their immediate vicinity. So, the ants at the top have no way of knowing that the tower building is complete. They keep trying to build it higher. But there aren’t enough ants below to support a higher tower. A higher tower would force the individual ants below to bear too much weight—that’s why the more ants, the higher the tower they build. So the tower gets physically unstable, the ants at the bottom layer of the tower leave and the rest of the tower sinks to fill in the missing space.”
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