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Ants Continue to Colonize Even When in Space

By Quinn Fucile | Mar 31, 2015 03:59 PM EDT

Space, the final frontier; these are the voyages of ants. No seriously, back in January the International Space Station received a shipment of ants. Particularly eight colonies of 80 ants, and the results of this research have just now been published. (via BBC)

Scientists wanted to study how the ants would react to the microgravity environment of the ISS. This wasn't merely to watch a bunch of ants tumble around, we're assuming that was just a beneficial side effect. But it was to examine how this radically different environment altered their search patterns.

Ants perform a task called collective searching. Each individual ant is working independently but they still need to cooperate. Since they're not intelligent enough to directly communicate with each other, they rely on physical and chemical signals. They have instinctual behaviors for how to react to various environmental signals, allowing them to maximize their collective search efficiency.

Starting with a small nest module, barriers were removed to give each colony access to a bigger and bigger enclosure. Compared to control colonies back on earth, the space ants didn't do as well in searching for their enclosure. As expected they had some difficulty dealing with the microgravity environment. While they were able to walk along surfaces, they occasionally became dislodged and would float for several minutes before landing back on the "ground".

The paths they took were generally more convoluted and less efficient, but the researchers are still happy with the insights they gained. This experiment was part of a larger project to study ant behavior in general. Based out of Stanford, the team is asking schools and other groups to set up similar environments for ants to explore and to observe their strategies.

By observing the ants, the hope is to develop algorithms that could help robots and other automated systems perform searches and other tasks more efficiently. The advantage of this strategy is that it does not require a central system to coordinate efforts. Just like the ants, robots would rely on their environment and close range communication with each other to maximize their performance.

Searching in this way can be applied to digital systems, like search engines. However, the ultimate goal is to enhance search and rescue efforts. Observing ants on earth could certainly help robots that are designed to search rubble and other structures during natural disasters. And observing these ants in space could lead to interesting applications for automation in that environment. 

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