How Ants Cooperate to Move Heavy Loads
Ants are renowned weight lifters, able to carry objects many times their own body weight. Acting as a team, they can haul food much larger than themselves, like bigger insects or entire potato chips. A new study in Nature Communications has determined that ants’ ability to move mountain-like mounds of food relies on a delicate balance of individual effort and teamwork.
Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel watched longhorn crazy ants (a species known for their seemingly erratic movements) as they carried oversized food items, like Cheerios, toward their nest. The ants coordinated their pulling forces most of the time, but about 10 percent of the time, the ants started pulling in different directions. A select few “scout” ants serve as leaders, jumping in during those chaotic periods to start steering the load in the right direction, then jumping out again. Since they’re not involved in the majority of the pulling, these ants can bring in new information about where to go.
The system helped the ants work efficiently to reduce the amount of time between finding food and getting it back to the nest—which also serves to reduce the window in which thieves might come along and steal their hard-earned prize from them.