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Learning from Ant Societies

Ants have an amazing ability to communicate with each other and work together to accomplish complex tasks.

Their specialized behavior due to chemical communication is so well developed, in fact, that humans can learn a lot from them about how best to work in teams.

British scientists at the University of Bristol are studying colonies of army ants to understand how they organize themselves and share knowledge. These insects, which come in various sizes, are known for using their bodies as living plugs to cover potholes on the rough terrain between their nest and their prey.

When they encounter a hole in their path, they quickly determine which of them is the best fit. The appropriate ant then lies across the gap, allowing the remainder of the group, as many as 200,000 other ants, to step on its back. This important minority of ants optimizes the food collection of the entire colony by literally paving the way for the others.

The collective behavior that emerges from a group of social insects, such as ants, can be called "swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence consists of the self-organization of many individuals that work collectively to find the best solution for a difficult problem.

The concepts of swarm intelligence have been used in a variety of human applications. "Ant colony optimization" has been mimicked as a routing method that improves the efficiency of cargo transfers on airplanes, and has even become a routing technique for moving data across telecommunications networks more smoothly. I guess you could say that our daily lives benefit from the tireless work of ants.

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