Big lessons from the tiniest creatures

It’s a classic scenario: in the midst of enjoying a lovely summer picnic in the park, you realize in dismay that a trail of ants is attacking your watermelon slice, and another is carrying away the breadcrumbs from your sandwiches. These tiny creatures have a habit of turning up everywhere, often appearing from the most impossible-looking cracks and crevices. To some this behavior is annoying, but to others it is fascinating. Stanford professor Dr. Deborah Gordon has spent over 25 years researching the mysteries of ant colonies, and reckons they might have a lot to teach us. This 30th December marks her 61st birthday, and DiscovHER uses this occasion to explore some of her work.

Dr. Deborah Gordon is one of the leading researchers on ant behavior patterns, after having spent over 25 years studying the colonies of various species. She has developed an intricate knowledge of their systems of organization, honed over thousands of years of evolution, which allow these humble insects to achieve great things.


There are over 14,000 species of ants on earth, living in a range of different environments endowed with different resources. Colonies must organize themselves in such a way as to enable optimal resource collection and the security of their nest. Whilst their organizing systems are therefore widely varied in accordance to the specific conditions of their environment, they all resemble each other in that they lack central control. No individual ant has full knowledge of what is happening in the system; each ant keeps track of its own encounters with other ants and with the chemicals they deposit in order to determine what task should be completed next.

This kind of dynamic network sounds impossible to imagine, as our ideas of organization typically involve top-down control and careful planning. However, Dr. Gordon has identified numerous ways in which ant organization systems resemble our own. In what she calls a “high operating costs scenario,” Dr. Gordon describes ant behavior on hot, dry days, where foraging for seeds (a source of water for ants) involves a high expenditure of water. In these circumstances, ants will prefer to stay put in the nest (and thus expend minimal water) unless they receive a “go” signal from another ant, such as a successful forager returning to the nest with a piece of food. This may sound familiar to computer scientists, as it resembles the TCP protocol (Transmission Control Protocol) used to decide whether to send data out on the internet or not. A message isn’t sent until it receives a “go” signal, indicating that there is enough bandwidth available for the message to reach its destination.

What is really fascinating, however, is the lessons that we might learn from ant organization systems and their human applications. Ant defense systems are a good example. It is important for colonies to be able to detect intruders in their nests, such as ants from competing colonies. Relying on their sense of smell to identify each other, each ant learns from an early age what their nest mates typically smell like. Once an ant encounters an enemy ant, however, its smell is classed as that of a foe. No ant has individual knowledge of the smells of all the enemies of its colony, but as every ant knows a few enemies, collectively, the colony can recognize intruders most of the time. This might be an excellent way to improve the efficiency of spam filters; by sharing the detection of new threats among multiple entities, it might prove easier to keep spam at bay.

Dr. Gordon’s research could go even further. Ant exploration algorithms may inspire the design of robots used to search burning buildings or new planets, and their clustered resource collection strategy may give us new insights into how cancer cells interact with each other. It looks like we have a lot to learn from our little friends! 

For Women in Science

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