In a recent research that could influence the development and programming of swarm robotics, researchers from the University of California, Riverside, have been studying how ants assemble to form living rafts in the event of floods. Their research shows the significance of individual differences in behavior when working as a group.
The team of researchers discovered that a species of ant that clump together to form rafts during floods exhibit memory. These ants also occupy the same position repeatedly during formation of the raft. According to the research, ants work together -like humans- to enhance their response during emergency situations and each ant is assigned a particular task. When they work together, they are able to achieve tasks that cannot be performed by a single individual. “Self-assembly” is a case in point, it is the process by which ants link their bodies to form structures such as rafts, walls or ladders.
The researchers confirmed that when ants assemble to create rafts, individual insects repeatedly take the same position within the living raft. The floating platforms are then loaded with the queen and the larvae. According to the researchers, this is the first time memory has been manifested with such forms of self-assembly. They hope that their research can assist in improving swarm robots and microbots, which are based on ants and other insects that are social.
Jessica Purcell, the co-author of the paper published in the journal The Science of Nature, said in a statement, “These elaborate rafts are some of the most visually stunning examples of cooperation in ants,”
“They are just plain cool. Although people have observed self-assemblages in the past, it's exciting to make new strides in understanding how individuals coordinate to build these structures,” She added.
Scientists have been amazed by how different ant species can collectively form rafts during heavy rainstorms. A previous study froze ant rafts in liquid nitrogen, glued the ants in a single place before CT scanning them to inquire how they can hold themselves together. They discovered that whenever individual ants stick together, they use all six of their legs plus their mouth. They tend to grab on the other’s legs.
The researchers were amazed to discover that some ants had even more legs grabbing onto their neighbors. According to the researchers, this feature is responsible for the ant’s flexible movement. Bending and stretching their legs gives them greater control over their structure. Another research has unveiled how some ants will place the nest mate in the middle of the raft as a way of protection.
The recent study from The University of California adds to the already existing research about the ant’s ability to self-assemble, showing that ants stick to the same role, regularly taking the same place: base, middle, side or top position of the raft.
Ants can perform unimaginable tasks because they have an extraordinary ability to work together. The ant colony has often been referred to as “super organism” because of its collective nature. The collective skill is what captured the interest of researchers from the University of California.
Studying self-assembly in social insects can help scientists address some evolutionary and biological questions. The fields of nanorobotics and swarm robotics use social insects as models in designing ‘cooperative’ robots that can assist in medicine.