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Ant Colony Behavior Shows Significant Evolutionary Advantages, According To New Findings

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To ants, survival of the fittest is a sham. A new study has found that instead of competing for resources, working together has evolutionary advantages.

A team of scientists led by Daniel Kronauer, an evolutionary biologist, looked at clonal raider ants, a type of ants that can naturally clone itself, to figure out how a beneficial division of labor emerges within a queenless colony.

Cooperation Is Key

"You would think, if you pair similar individuals from a single species, their function would be redundant," said Kronauer. " If anything, there should be competition between individuals."

However, to clonal raider ants, the opposite seems to take place. Over a 45-day period, the team of scientists monitored how the clonal raider ants divide labor and develop a community.

Groups (ranging from one to 16) of clonal raider ants were placed in Petri dishes lined with hardened plaster where ants individually forage for food, care for eggs, dispose of wastes, and do other tasks.

The scientists found that larger colonies that produced more offsprings experienced greater stability than smaller groups. Even when the ants were extremely similar, these insects somehow eventually specialized in a particular task.

However, even in small groups where there are similar individuals with redundant specialization, a division of labor emerges.

"We show that even small groups of extremely similar individuals can do much better than individuals by themselves, and that division of labor can emerge in a self-organized manner pretty much immediately," he added. "That's not necessarily what I would have expected, and it implies that group living might evolve fairly readily, rather than constitute a major barrier that evolution can rarely overcome."

The study was published in Nature on Tuesday, Aug. 22.

What Humans Can Learn From Ant Colonies

Kronauer, however, warns not to compare the results of the observation from ant colonies to human societies. Ants, unlike humans, exhibit distributed intelligence that together allows the superorganisms to create complex nests or form floating rafts.

He explained that individual ants work more like a single cell in an organism rather than a mirror to humans, who have developed individual cognitive abilities, existing within modern societies.

Scientists still have something to extract from the experiment. The observed behavior of clonal raider ant colonies could uncover how solitary animals evolve into complex societies. The next step of the study is to found out if genetics and ages of ants in each colony would play a part in the emergence of the division of labor.

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