Tuesday, 26 February 2013

On the shoulders of Ants...

I have always been fascinated by ants since my childhood in Canberra spent poking about at giant anthills, cruelly pouring water in one hole just to see the ants evacuating from another. Even small children are impressed at the level of coordinated effort of ants en masse, and the immense strength of the individual ant, which makes one think that they are truly a super-evolved species. A popular primary school classroom project in Australia was to allow an ant colony to develop in a sand-filled fish tank so the kids could witness the intricate tunnels and caves at close quarters. And my brother must have had ants in his pants too, as his degree show in interactive design was based on close-up video footage of an ant colony which he had started himself - I've asked him to resurrect this site so I can share. He subsequently donated the ant colony to the zoo, and I think he was quite upset to part with it!

Science Blogs is a great source of weird and wonderful nuggets of discovery and it had a great feature on myrmecology (the study of ants) last weekend "Down the Ant Hole" which describes how a social biologist called Walter Tschinkel poured molten metal into subterranean ant-holes, incinerating the poor ants, in order to make metal casts of their interior...

I will forgive him this sadism as he created the most beautiful, sculptural casts, which add greatly to my respect for ants. With chambers at different levels connected by delicate passageways, these intricate structures are reminiscent of space colonies in science fiction. Ant colonies can achieve depths of more than 12 feet and can house up to 10,000 ants, the youngest at the lowest levels and the adult ants near the top.

A recent paper called "Tiny Brains, Big Psychologies; How Ants Changed our Understanding of the Mind" (by Charlotte Sleigh, in the current issue of the Journal of History and Philosophy of Psychology) describes how nineteenth century theorists such as August Forel attempted to unravel the riddle of ant intelligence and "began to dissociate ant's psychology from their (limited) physical brains." Forel apparently so obsessed with ants that he called his home on the shores of Lake Geneva La Fourmilière or "the Ant Colony". My curiosity was piqued, so I investigated further...

An illustrious figure from the hey-day of Darwinism, Forel was intrigued with ants and studied their behaviour from the age of seven. According to the Innominate Society of Louisville Forel "is so revered in his native Switzerland that his visage appears on a postage stamp and on the one-thousand franc Swiss bank note".  He took over the running of the Burgholzli Asylum in Zurich where he introduced many humanitarian reforms and radical improvements in patient care, and based on his work here he is credited with the invention of occupational therapy. He is also credited as the co-founder of the Neuron Theory. After his death in 1914 he donated two entire truckloads of ant specimens to the Zoological Society.  "He had personally collected six thousand species of ants, thirty-five hundred of which, he had personally discovered and named in his worldwide travels". Read more about Forel here.

Anyway, back to Sleigh's paper. She grapples rather unsuccessfully with the question of the boundaries of psychology, and it strikes me that  she would have done better to stop trying to fit the square peg of psychology into the round hole of social biology. The only other approach she alludes to (referring to a BBC article by Richard Anderson ) is the mathematical algorithms favoured by big business, which owe something to the study of ant colonies and the idea of distributed cognition or at least "dispersed cognition". This perspective, she says, explores "the idea that learning from the ants can enable us to plot networks for business in a smart fashion. It is based on a later-still model of the dispersed ant mind popular amongst cyberneticians of the 1950s and 60s".

To round it all off, an essay in the Myrmecological News bulletin (yes there is such a thing) has probably the best perspective on ant cognition I have found so far.  Here's the abstract which I have quoted in full, as it makes an articulate case for both a collective and individual intelligence in ants;

"Ants are regarded by many non-scientists as reflex automata, with hardwired and inflexible behaviour. Even in the modern field of complexity science, they are sometimes portrayed as an example of simple units that can nevertheless, construct collective processes and infrastructures of bewildering sophistication, through feedback-controlled mass action. However, classical studies and recent investigations both have shown repeatedly that individual ants and other arthropods can display great flexibility in their behaviour, often associated with learning. This involves not only simple conditioning to the locations of stimuli associated with food, but also more complex learning, attention, planning, and possibly the use of cognitive maps (shown in honey bees). Ants in particular have been shown to employ sophisticated behaviours not only collectively, but also individually: one example is the use of tools, which was once thought to be a uniquely human characteristic. The evolution of such skills is not well understood. Recent research has demonstrated costs of learning, and therefore only some ecological conditions may favour the evolution of advanced cognitive abilities. The diversity of ants provides a rich resource for studying the link between ecology and learning ability, as well as revealing how much can be achieved with a brain that is many orders of magnitude smaller than ours".

So much to explore, and like the anthills of my childhood I have only scratched the surface...


  1. The behaviour of ants is fascinating. Researchers have recently conveyed how robot ants successfully mimic real colony behavior!

    Here is a link to this research:


  2. They are not only hard working but also very intelligent. Their great architecture knowledge protect them form many disastrous. We have lot of lessons to learn form them. Thanks for the article.

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