Ant Science Goes Orwellian

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The media is carrying stories of a study in Science showing that Camponotus workers specialize into three behavioral classes, and that workers tend to move through these roles as they age. This result is interesting, but not terribly surprising as a similar pattern is known in the better-studied honey bees.

The reason the paper appears in Science, rather than a more specialized journal, is methodological. Danielle Mersch, Laurent Keller, and Alessandro Crespi have automated the observation of an ant colony. Basically, they built the perfect Orwellian ant-watching machine.

Each ant is labelled to be recognized by high-resolution video, and her position and social interactions are recorded continuously for the length of the experiment. The technique produces a staggering amount of data from relatively little effort once the initial tedious bits of gluing barcodes on ants are out of the way.

Check out just one short clip:

After extending this recording to six colonies for 41 days, Big Brother crunched the numbers:

Network analyses of over 9 million interactions revealed three distinct groups that differ in behavioral repertoires. Each group represents a functional behavioral unit with workers moving from one group to the next as they age. The rate of interactions was much higher within than between groups. The precise information on spatial and temporal distribution of all individuals permitted calculation of the expected rates of within- and between-group interactions. These values suggest that the network of interaction within colonies is primarily mediated by age-induced changes in the spatial location of workers.

The really interesting bits will come later, in my opinion, when the method is harnessed across other species. Assuming the ants don’t first figure out what we’re up to, that is.

source: Mersch, Crespi, Keller (2013) Tracking Individuals Shows Spatial Fidelity Is a Key Regulator of Ant Social Organization. Science, Published online 18 April 2013 [DOI:10.1126/science.1234316]

See also Ed Yong’s “Tracking whole colonies shows ants make career moves” commentary in Nature.

6 thoughts on “Ant Science Goes Orwellian”

  1. “Ant science automates vigilance or surveillance” would perhaps be more accurate. Orwellian connotes a policy of control & surveillance with a desired end condition. I doubt the scientists want to intentionally alter ant behavior in this instance….

    1. Never. The robot amoeba will provide screw sorting at half the cost because they don’t have collective bargaining like the robot ants do.

  2. The first reaction, here too, was that the behaviour of individuals is measurably altered. But then, who’d measure that? And what would it matter? The overall picture seems to be accurate within the species and time in question. It would surprise me hugely, if one wouldn’t find a large variety of behavioural class change organization amongst the huge variety of ant species… And whether a 41 day period is long enough to explain it thoroughly even in this one species, where it might depend on climate (Camponotus fellah will be found from Northern Africa to the Mediterranean), size of the colony, or other ex-/internal factors, remains the question.

  3. The study is cool, for sure, I am skeptical of the breadth of impact that this method will have on the study of colony behavior. Will this be practical for studying species smaller than your average Camponotus, such as Temnothorax rugatulus or Octostruma balzani? Additionally, I would be most excited about a method for studying ant behavior outside of the nest, especially in a natural setting.

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