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Ever wondered how ants build complex tunnels?

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simulated ant nest construction/CRCA, CNRS (Toulouse)

From ScienceDaily:

The nest of black garden ants, Lasius niger, consists of an underground part made up of a network of galleries, and a mound of earth composed of a large number of bubble-shaped chambers closely interconnected with each other. Using 3D imaging techniques such as X-ray tomography[2] and a 3D scanner, the researchers characterized the 3D structures made by the ants as well as the construction dynamics. In addition, they analyzed the individual building behavior of the ants.

In the part located above ground, the insects pile up their building materials forming pillars that encircle the chambers. The ants preferentially deposit their soil pellets in areas where other clusters of pellets have already been created. They add a pheromone to their material, which stimulates the other ants to build on the same spot, leading to the formation of regularly spaced pillars. When the columns reach a height equal to the average body-length of an ant, the workers build caps on top of the pillars. They use their body size as a template to determine when they should stop building vertically and begin to deposit pellets laterally. The ants thus use two types of indirect interactions in order to build complex architectures.

In addition, the pheromone breaks down over time at a rate that depends on climate conditions, which enables construction to adapt to the environment. More.

Amazing how all the live ants all just happen to do all this, and meanwhile the water remains water and the sand remains sand.

See also: Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain? No.

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Here’s the abstract:

The nests of social insects are not only impressive because of their sheer complexity but also because they are built from individuals whose work is not centrally coordinated. A key question is how groups of insects coordinate their building actions. Here, we use a combination of experimental and modeling approaches to investigate nest construction in the ant Lasius niger. We quantify the construction dynamics and the 3D structures built by ants. Then, we characterize individual behaviors and the interactions of ants with the structures they build. We show that two main interactions are involved in the coordination of building actions: (i) a stigmergic-based interaction that controls the amplification of depositions at some locations and is attributable to a pheromone added by ants to the building material; and (ii) a template-based interaction in which ants use their body size as a cue to control the height at which they start to build a roof from existing pillars. We then develop a 3D stochastic model based on these individual behaviors to analyze the effect of pheromone presence and strength on construction dynamics. We show that the model can quantitatively reproduce key features of construction dynamics, including a large-scale pattern of regularly spaced pillars, the formation and merging of caps over the pillars, and the remodeling of built structures. Finally, our model suggests that the lifetime of the pheromone is a highly influential parameter that controls the growth and form of nest architecture. (Public access) – Anaïs Khuong, Jacques Gautrais, Andrea Perna, Chaker Sbaï, Maud Combe, Pascale Kuntz, Christian Jost & Guy Theraulaz. Stigmergic construction and topochemical information shape ant nest architecture. PNAS, 18 January 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1509829113

10 Replies to “Ever wondered how ants build complex tunnels?

  1. 1
    Virgil Cain says:

    We don’t have to wonder how ants build complex tunnels because obviously it was via 1-3 parts natural selection and 99-97 parts genetic drift. You just go find that (alleged) theory of evolution and it will tell you so. Evolution 101. Class dismissed. (end sarcasm) 😎

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    No evolutionomist believes genetic drift can build complex adaptations any more then they believe a tornado passing through a junkyard can build a 747, even though a tornado provides more direction.

  3. 3
    Zachriel says:

    News: Ever wondered how ants build complex tunnels?

    A good example of how simple rules applied locally can create a global structure.

  4. 4
    J-Mac says:

    Don’t worry guys!

    Larry Moran will take care of those minuscule “problems” at the Royal Society meet in London. He actually has serious lab experimental proof that the random genetic drift builds and reconstructs complex organisms and if anyone refuses to accept the modern evolutionary theory, they will be mocked, bullied and abused on Larry Moran’s blog as well as on PZ Meyers’… well and possibly on J. Coyne’s blog if he can squeeze it in between his regular talk to cats and Jesus and Mo nonsense…

  5. 5
    Virgil Cain says:

    A good example of how simple rules applied locally can create a global structure.

    Yah, cuz ants know the rules and their reach is global. 🙄

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    Did the ants decide on the rules by first assembling a rules committee?

  7. 7
    Zachriel says:

    Mung: Did the ants decide on the rules by first assembling a rules committee?

    No! That’s the amazing thing — a flexible global structure deriving from simple local interactions.

  8. 8
    Virgil Cain says:

    Mung:

    No evolutionomist believes genetic drift can build complex adaptations any more then they believe a tornado passing through a junkyard can build a 747, even though a tornado provides more direction.

    Not genetic drift alone. But drift with rounds of natural selection.

  9. 9
    Virgil Cain says:

    That’s the amazing thing — a flexible global structure deriving from simple local interactions.

    And all because they were intelligently designed to do so, ie with that ability and capability. 😎

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    VC, I am pretty sure that tornadoes don’t just drift along. They are a perfect metaphor for evolution.

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