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Ants take on a very human-like trait when facing uncertainty

Published Jul 14th, 2023 11:41AM EDT
ant crawling on leaf
Image: KingFisher / Adobe

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What if I told you humans aren’t the only ones that set budgets? Of course, I don’t mean the kind of budget where you break down how much you’re going to spend on takeout each month. Instead, I mean budgeting in the manner of managing uncertainty by determining where to spend important and limited resources, such as time. The culprit that uses this human trait? Weaver ants.

We’ve all found ourselves facing uncertainty at one point or another. Usually, this comes in the form of determining whether we should invest more time into finding solutions, thereby budgeting one of our most important resources, or if we should just take the first solution that comes up. Well, weaver ants seem to follow similar systems with an even more uncertain payoff.

According to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, weaver ants manage their problems by budgeting their own colony members in a very uncertain solution. See, weaver ants are just one type of ant that approach certain problems by creating bridges. The only problem is, those bridges are made of other ants, which literally puts those ants in a position where they can’t help or defend the colony.

It’s quite the gamble, especially considering that the ants aren’t always sure that bridging the gap will actually pay off. Further, the researchers found that the ants don’t partake in this kind of budgeting by following a specific leader, or even any kind of external blueprints. Instead, they self-organize their bridges, relying on their surroundings and the actions of their neighbors to help them bridge the gap.

This intriguing discovery is key to understanding the collective behavior in animal groups and other systems, including the flow of human traffic and how human crowds organize themselves. But why is this budgeting and self-organization such a big deal? Well, as I noted above, it comes with immense risks for the colony.

See, when weaver ants begin a bridge, they literally interlock themselves amongst each other, creating a pathway for other ants to travel. However, the ants that are part of this chain are stuck there, waiting for the others to complete their journey. This leaves them indisposed if something happens to the colony or the rest of the group of ants currently crossing the bridge.

The researchers found that the ants in the chain will remain in the chain for a length of time that is proportional to their distance to the ground, the researchers write in The Conversation. If another ant is hanging from it, then the ant won’t remove itself from the chain, thus choosing to budget its time to the chain in the gamble that it proves worthwhile for the colony as a whole.

The entire research here is extremely intriguing and just goes to show how even the smallest creatures that call Earth home can take part in the same traits that humanity relies on. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the similarities between humans and other creatures, either. Previous research showed some insane similarities between human and octopus brains that left scientists scratching their heads.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.