Researchers from the University of Bristol found ants in motion are not distracted by social information and only respond to it fully when at rest. Findings suggest that irregularly monitoring social information could lessen the risk of information overload and even strengthen complex societies.

Together with colleagues, Edmund Hunt, a doctoral student from the university's School of Biological Sciences analyzed lone rock ants or Temnothorax albipennis and recorded how the ants moved when they explored a large pitch just outside their nest. They analyzed movements in two scenarios: when the field was clean and when the area teemed with pheromones or other cues that were left by same-nest ants.

The team found there is a connection between the length and speed average of the ant's movement, but these movements varied around its consistent speed average.

They found that an ant's average speed increases when it is expecting a longer movement. In a way, the periods of movement seemed pre-determined. The discovery was the same in the presence and absence of pheromones or other cues in the arena. The findings proposed that the species completely respond to social information only when they are in between movements.

"An intermittent response to social information would help the individual ant by reducing the burden of information it has to process when moving around in its crowded society," said Hunt.

The irregular monitoring of social information benefits the ant colony as well. Moderating the feedback effects can limit the spread of poor quality social information across the colony. Otherwise, it could affect the effectiveness of the ants' regionalized tasking method.

Irregular monitoring of social information while on the go could help the scientific community to better understand other complex social systems, including that of humans. The research was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal on Wednesday.

In a separate study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found epigenetic drugs can reprogram carpenter ants' social behaviors. Ant colonies have caste systems – based on their morphological and behavioral characteristics – that determine an ant's specific task in a particular division. The group's social adaptation contributes to an organized colony.

The carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus) can possibly defy this pre-determined life. Epigenetic drugs called acetyl groups have been found to effectively alter the assigned behaviors of each ant division.

Photo: Katja Schulz | Flickr

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