At the beginning of space exploration, scientists sent chimpanzees, rabbits, frogs, mice, and even a dog to space. Now, ants have also joined that list. NASA launched ants into space so biologists could study the effects that zero gravity has on the creatures and their ability to search new areas. What they researched and discovered is actually quite interesting.
In January 2014, researchers worked with NASA to send up eight colonies of 80 pavement ants to the International Space Station. The ants stayed in small, transparent plastic containers, and each one had a nest where the ants lived. Stanford professor of biology Deborah Gordon created the experiment. She wanted to see how the ants would change the algorithms they use to explore new areas in an exotic surroundings.
Ants back on Earth are always monitoring their environment to look for food and stay alert for threats. To do this, they send out worker ants to search the area. However, no single ant is in charge of the search and most ants have very poor vision, so they have to rely on their sense of smell. Yet those restraints don’t seem to hamper the ants in their exploration. This is because ants communicate with each other by smell and touching antennae.
If they have frequent antennae-to-antennae contact with other ants, they know the area is densely populated, and they head out on small, random, and circular paths to get more detailed information about their area. On the other hand, if they don’t have a lot of contact with other ants, they change their search patterns algorithm. In this case, they opt to explore using straight lines to cover more ground.
In the experiment in space, a barrier was removed to allow the ants to explore a new area. Then a second barrier was removed a few minutes later to give the ants even more territory to explore. Scientists wanted to see if ants would change their exploration patterns when dealing with no gravity. While the ants still tried to stick with their usual search patterns, they weren’t as effective as they are on the ground.
They had a hard time keeping their feet on the surface, and they would sometimes tumble in the air for up to eight seconds before they could regain some footing. This meant the antennae-to-antennae communication was constantly getting interrupted. In a similar container on Earth, ants could explore the entire area in under five minutes, while in space, some parts of the container remained unexplored.
Just like the ants in space, humans have to deal with disruptions in their algorithms. Researchers hope to study how the ants adjusted their search behavior. They want to then use this information to improve the algorithms that we use for everything from robots to telecommunications.
With this interesting experiment, scientists hope to improve our own algorithms so we can enjoy systems that run as efficiently as ants searching for food.