Monday, January 16, 2006

Ants and their 'intelligent' behavior!

` Whoo! I am sooo tired right now! I got up at 8:30 this morning, spent most of the day calling apartments and chased each one around town through the rain.
` It's been pretty exhausting
, though I think I found at least one ideal place....

` Now, what's this about ants?

` Well, I was reading a couple interesting articles about ant behavior in Scientific American online, which got me thinking about just how many things can an ant do with such a small brain?

` Here's the first article, more or less:

For the past few millennia, ants of the Attini tribe have tended gardens of fungus that they eat. Over the past few decades scientists have studied these agricultural insects, trying to understand how their gardens grew in the first place.
` Yes, and as I'd learned years ago, fungus-tending ants employ bacteria to protect them.
Entomologist Cameron Currie of the University of Wisconsin and his colleagues discovered the antibiotic bacteria in crescent-shaped pits on the exoskeletons of two species of Panamanian ants, Cyphomyrex longiscapus and C. muelleri, after scanning them with an electron microscope. The bacteria--of the Pseudonocarida genus--bloom on the individual face plates and other exterior parts of the ant, allowing it to rub the antiparasitic agent on its fungi crop. The ant also nurtures the microbe by secreting nutrients from special exocrine glands connected to the shallow pits.
` In other words, the ants are homes for the symbiotic bacteria, which are essential for growing underground fungal crops, which is the ants' only food source:
` Without the bacteria, the fungus would die, without the ants, the bacteria would die, and without the fungus, the ants would die.

` A rather charming form of symbiosis I would say.
"Every ant species [that we have examined] has different, highly modified structures to support different types of bacteria," Currie observes. "This indicates that the ants have rapidly adapted to maintain the bacteria. It also indicates that the coevolution between the bacteria and the ants, as well as the fungus and parasites, has been occurring since very early on, apparently for tens of millions of years."
In fact, more than 200 species of ants display this complex symbiosis, according to Currie. "It now appears that the fungus-growing ants are more modified for culturing their mutualistic bacteria than for their mutualistic fungi," Currie notes.
` So, if ants are able to keep their pesticide effective (because it continually evolves), there is probably much wisdom to gain. Such as... use a living pesticide? Could be dangerous, though.
The unexpected finding also bears promise for human agriculture and medicine: the ants have been able to avoid promoting resistance for as long as 50 million years. "I think it has to do with the ants having several mechanisms to suppress the parasite," Currie says. "In addition to the bacteria, the ants have specialized behaviors that involve removing the parasite from the fungus garden."
` Interesting, no? And yet, strangely, there's more: Some other ants evolved the instinct to teach through a quite simple process. Seriously!!
Nigel Franks and Tom Richardson of the University of Bristol in England studied so-called tandem running in Temnothorax albipennis ants, during which two ants run a course between nest and food with various stops and starts en route. The researchers found that the lead ant who knows the way to the food slows down as the follower familiarizes itself with the route and will not proceed until the follower taps it on the back. The two also maintain a variable but matching speed and distance over time.
` In other words, the 'pupil' ant is paying attention to the leader, and the leader is also paying attention to its 'student'. The leader is also sacrificing its efficiency - it takes about four times as long to reach food with a follower than it does without one.
` So, defining 'teaching' as feedback in both directions at some kind of sacrifice to the teacher, this qualifies for that. Even so, being insects with tiny brains, the ants are still responding to very simple cues:
"This behavior is beautifully simple," Richardson says. "If one experimentally removes the follower and taps the leader with a hair at a rate of two times per second or more, the leader will continue."
` The benefit? The student ants then reached the food over a minute faster than they normally would have, and they often become teachers to other ants.
` I suppose this is to be expected, however, as individual ants tend to act in the interests of the entire colony. Though, while there is a similar effect when large amounts of ants leave pheremone trails, one ant closely following another has never been seen before.
` Neato, huh?

` Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!! Zintch! Zintch! Zintch!

` Phil has just asked me; "What in god's name is that?"
` Yes, folks, it's the Atomic Cricket of Imminent Flames!! Gotta go.

` ...Apparently, apartment 311 in the other building had a minor stove fire: We walked all the way out there in the cold rain for nothing, though the fire trucks are still here.

` Speaking of cold rain, that's where I spent most of today. First off, I saw the apartment that's next to one I'm interested in, then I walked through part of another but only saw the bedroom through a window (it was occupied by someone who had stopped over for a nap), did not get to see the third one because the tenent is still there, and as for the fourth one, I likee the most!
` There's a front door which locks automatically, then an upstairs door with a lock, a nice kitchen and two bathrooms at the top, and to the left, my potential room - which is really small with a lot of shelves. It's perfect for me, really, as I have no furniture besides a bookshelf and an electric piano.
` Unfortunately, while I was still there another applicant stopped by, which really raises the stakes. Oh, I hope I get that one!! It's only $395, including everything, and it's got a washer and dryer!!! Wooo! Come on lucky four!!
Or was it two? I forget.

` Anyway, I'd best go. I need to do other things. Stuff, also.


Aaron said...

Interesting stuff. Do the people doing the study think that the ants are aware of the pesticide they carry?

S E E Quine said...

` Assuming that ants can really be made aware of anything, I'd say that they'd have to be a lot less aware of the pesticide bacteria as they are of other ants.
` ...And they can mistake a hair for another ant!

` I don't really know what the scientists would think, though, as 'awareness' is not exactly something that you can observe directly. In fact, most scientists choose to leave this to the imagination.

Amber said...

Did you leave out the part of the article where they noted that no ant has EVER gone to mancamp?

S E E Quine said...

` That's true, although they definitely have the necessary survival instincts.
` In fact, when ants come across a slew of drowned brethren, they will use the carcasses to build a bridge rather than take their chances!

Galtron said...

That explains those tiny ant-carcass bridges I keep seeing in the puddles in my basement... I always thought those were the doing of evil spirits!