A novel perspective on animal culture: How ant colonies accumulate complex solutions in a fluctuating environment
August 1, 2023 - July 30, 2025
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Director: Takao SasakiInstitution: University of Georgia Research Foundation Inc
Ants exhibit measurable decision-making both at the individual level and collectively, in particular as they solve novel problems. By studying problem-solving in ant colonies, a team led by Takao Sasaki at the University of Georgia Research Foundation with the co-direction of Josep Call and Mathieu Charbonneau, aims to shed light on how animals without sophisticated communication tools or cognitive capacities, can collectively create novel, cumulative, efficient solutions beyond the capabilities of individuals. Specifically, the team will examine how fluctuating environmental challenges foster progressively complex and adept navigational solutions in the rock ant, Temnothorax rugatulus. For this project:
- The research team will vary the environment of a large number of colonies of ants.
- Individual ants will be tagged and followed by automated cameras to produce digital data for analysis.
- The research will be built upon a "teaching" behavior of a certain ant species known as "tandem running". This occurs when a scouting ant finds a food source and returns to the nest to physically drag another ant to the same source. By repeating this process, the colony becomes collectively aware of several routes to several food sources as scouts return and apportions resources accordingly.
- A set of aversive stimuli will block ants from choosing to take paths to rich food sources. Some individuals within the groups will be trained to overcome their aversion. Others in the collectives will remain untrained. The aim is to explore the degree to which a collective solves optimization problems when lower-value food supplies are available by open routes, but much better outcomes are achievable if aversive stimuli are ignored.
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