Of Ants, Networks and Nodes
Ants are highly networked insects. They are a social insect that organises in the mass of individuals into a ‘super-organism’. As such ants are often studied for insights into self organisation and network flow. It was assumed that most individuals in an ants nest followed the same set of key rules, however new research suggests that all nodes in the network are not equal – that some ants act as super-nodes. In an experiment where the ants found their home-nest destroyed, yet there was a new site they could move to nearby. Those ants who had previously explored the territory and so knew of the new site, suddenly took on the role of super-nodes;
Those ants then quickly returned to the destroyed nest to recruit followers. They repeated the process until enough had gathered at the new nest site to relocate the entire colony.
Most studies of how ants find new nest sites use colonies unfamiliar with a new territory, and assume that all workers follow the same rules. But that’s not realistic, and as a model for self-organization and distributed decision-making — ants have inspired various forms of traffic coordination, from cars to data — it might not be optimally efficient.
“This begins to change how we think about self-organization,” said Nicola Plowes, a behavioral ecologist and ant specialist at Arizona State University, who was not involved in the research. “Informed individuals making those decisions actually result in a process that is more efficient than a simple homogeneous self-organized system.”