A new study sheds light on the remarkable complexity of the communication networks used by ants. The new findings show that these networks can rival the massive networks used by tech companies like Google in sheer complexity.

At first glance, worker ants seem to exhibit random movements without any patterns whatsoever. Upon closer inspection however, foraging ants show remarkable organization. This level of organization is only possible with a complex and intricate communication network that can help ants systematically cover relatively large areas while ensuring a steady food supply for the entire colony.

"Ants have a nest so they need something like a strategy to bring home the food they find," said Beijing University of Posts of Communications researcher Lixiang Li. "We argue that this is a factor, largely underestimated so far, that actually determines their behavior." Li is also the lead author of a study on the subject published in the online journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

In terms of brain size, ants are known to have the largest brains amongst insect. Individually however, ants are relatively unimpressive creatures. When the entire colony pulls together however, ants can pull off feats that could put even humans to shame. The communication network used by ant colonies can be seen when worker ants go out to forage.

"While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I'm tempted to call intelligent," said Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) scientist Jürgen Kurths. "The principle of self-organisation is known from for instance fish swarms, but it is the homing which makes the ants so interesting." Kurths is also a co-author of the study as well as the head of the Transdisciplinary Concepts and Methods domain of the PIK.

To communicate with each other, ants use a network of pheromones to transfer and disseminate information. Each ant leaves a trail of pheromones that can be detected by other ants. Once an ant happens upon a source of food, other ants can follow the trail left behind by the original ant. While the pheromone can dissipate relatively quickly, ants are quick to follow up and as the number of ants going to and from a food source grow in number; the pheromone trail is reinforced again and again. As the ants proceed with foraging, they gradually figure out the shortest possible path between their nest and a viable food source.

The researchers behind the study have likened the complexity of the network used by foraging ants to that of the technology used by Google in their industry leading search engine.

"The ants collectively form a highly efficient complex network," Kurths added. "And this is something we find in many natural and social systems."

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