What ants teach us about conformism and individuality
Anyone who has ever watched an army of ants scurrying to carry a large crumb back to its nest has probably wondered how these tiny creatures manage the task. New research at the Weizmann Institute of Science, which appeared in Nature Communications in July, explains how a mix of individual direction and conformist behavior enables ants to work together to move their food in the desired direction.
To lug a large object, a number of ants surround it: Those in the back lift, while the ones in the lead pull. How do they stay on track, instead of the whole task turning into a tug-of-war? Dr. Ofer Feinerman and his group in the Institute’s Department of Physics of Complex Systems used video analysis to track the individual movements of ants in a group that were carrying a large food item toward their nest.
What they found was that the more ants that gathered around the item—for example, a breakfast cereal nugget—the faster they could move it. But while the bit of food always traveled in the general direction of the nest, its path was one of a multitude of wrong turns and corrections. Together with the group of Prof. Nir Gov of the Department of Chemical Physics, the scientists found that the ants that join the group latest steer the object while the others conform to the general motion.
What can this study teach us about the role of individuality within a group of social animals? Says Dr. Feinerman: “In this system, the wisdom does not come from crowds. Rather, some individuals supply the ‘brains’ and the role of the group is to amplify the ‘muscle’ power of savvy individuals so that they can actually move the load.”
Dr. Ofer Feinerman is funded by The Tom Beck Research Fellow Chair in the Physics of Complex Systems, The Clore Foundation, The Yeda-Sela Center for Basic Research. Dr. Feinerman is the incumbent of the Shlomo and Michla Tomarin Career Development Chair.
Prof. Nir Gov is funded by The Yeda-Sela Center for Basic Research. Prof. Gov is the incumbent of the Lee and William Abramowitz Professorial Chair of Biophysics.