All posts in Nature

The Lessons Learned from Ants


Today we face problems unlike those in the past—technological security threats, environment-related illness (e.g. cancer) and food shortages—to name a few, in a world whose population is bursting at the seams; and yet, though our plights may be contemporary, the path to better understanding them may reside in our backyard, in insects millions of years old.

Ants, the arthropods that astound us with their strength and work efficiency, behave in such a way that sheds light on how systems, specifically simple systems, work. Just as various models teach us how to understand behavior and the way things operate—imagine neural networks of the brain, for example, as a metaphor for understanding how people make decisions—so too does ant behavior.

Deborah Gordon, an ant scientist, recently gave a 14-minute TED talk that illuminated the value of ants. She’s on a mission to collect “ant collective search algorithms,” or in other words, maps of ants at work, in an effort to better understand how other systems, like computers or the spread of cancer, function. Here are some highlights:

 “Now, the Internet uses an algorithm to regulate the flow of data that’s very similar to the one that the harvester ants are using to regulate the flow of foragers…So data doesn’t leave the source computer unless it gets a signal that there’s enough bandwidth for it to travel on. In the early days of the Internet, when operating costs were really high and it was really important not to lose any data, then the system was set up for interactions to activate the flow of data. It’s interesting that the ants are using an algorithm that’s so similar to the one that we recently invented, but this is only one of a handful of ant algorithms that we know about, and ants have had 130 million years to evolve a lot of good ones, and I think it’s very likely that some of the other 12,000 species are going to have interesting algorithms for data networks that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

The inner workings of an ant colony may not be that of a computer processing system (or a fast-paced business, or collaborative project), but certainly lessons can be learned from the numerous patterns of behaviors that have evolved since the dawn of time. The sea, a dominant force of nature, teaches us to respect and, at times, surrender to things out of our control. Ants too, in all their seeming chaos, have developed organization that could help inform, or at a minimum, inspire how we manage our own lives.

Ms. Gordon knows this, and her imagination runs wild with ideas of how ants can help us. About treating cancer, she says:

“There are many different kinds of cancer. Each one originates in a particular part of the body, and then some kinds of cancer will spread or metastasize to particular other tissues where they must be getting resources that they need. So if you think from the perspective of early metastatic cancer cells as they’re out searching around for the resources that they need, if those resources are clustered, they’re likely to use interactions for recruitment, and if we can figure out how cancer cells are recruiting, then maybe we could set traps to catch them before they become established.”

Here’s the video in its entirety:

To sum it up, Ms. Gordon ends with this:

“So ants are using interactions in different ways in a huge variety of environments, and we could learn from this about other systems that operate without central control. Using only simple interactions, ant colonies have been performing amazing feats for more than 130 million years. We have a lot to learn from them.”

photo credit: Charlie Stinchcomb via photopin cc

The Secret Chatter of Plants


As the case with many posts on the outdoor world, what is most certain in an age of science, investigation and exploration is the mystery that surrounds nature and its effects; we simply don’t know everything, and the more we dig, sometimes all we get are more questions.

Recently, NPR featured a spot on plants, specifically on plants that “talk” to each other. It is spring now, and the Earth is beginning to unveil its awakened harvest. Life is in bloom all around us—growing, reaching high, responding in ways that make clear to us humans that the natural world is thriving, that it is alive. When I came upon this story, I was primed to believe its premise was true. But is it really possible, for plants to communicate to one another?

According to NPR’s Robert Krulwich:

“When a leafy plant is under attack, it doesn’t sit quietly. Back in 1983, two scientists, Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin, reported that young maple saplings getting bitten by insects release a spurt of chemicals that float through the air. You and I wouldn’t notice, but these chemicals carry a slight odor that neighboring plants can detect. It’s a little like a silent scream. These chemicals come from the injured parts of the plant and seem to be an alarm. Maybe not an intentional warning like, ‘Watch Out! Aphid Attack!’ but more like a simple distress call like, ‘Aphids! Aphids! Aphids!’ or, ‘Attack! Attack!’ The chemicals the plants pump through the air are a blend of organic molecules — alcohols, aldehydes, ketones and esters — known as volatile organic compounds, VOCs for short.”

In other words, an injured plant alerts a neighbor, which may take it upon itself to summon the infantry of the wild—in the case of the bean plant attack by aphids, wasps. Is this communication intentional, or random? According to NPR’s segment, scientists aren’t sure, but they are nevertheless stunned:

“But, the more they [scientists] look, the more they discover plants chattering. ‘It’s pretty spectacular what plants do,’ Ted Farmer of the University of Lausanne said. ‘I’m amazed.’”

Mr. Farmer is not the only academic to believe in this wonder. Richard Karban, of the University of California, Davis, corroborated the findings in The Scientist Magazine, and shared his enthusiasm:

“In last 15 years the idea that plants are communicating has become much more accepted. It’s exciting to unravel all these different realms of plant communication.”

But where does this leave us, as living organisms inhabiting a shared space, with other flourishing species? Why are plants sounding the alarms? Is it intentional? And to what or whom is the communication directed? Inquiring minds want to know.

The most comprehensive write-up on this topic was a piece last December by Kat McGowan, published in Quanta Magazine. In it, she sums up our curiosity and recommends an approach familiar to those in the fields of humanities—an empathetic one:

“Whether or not such practical applications come to pass, the science of plant talk is challenging long-held definitions of communication and behavior as the sole province of animals. Each discovery erodes what we thought we knew about what plants do and what they can do. To learn what else they’re capable of, we have to stop anthropomorphizing plants, said [Ian] Baldwin (of Dartmouth University), who is now at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and try instead to think like them, to phytomorphize ourselves. Imagining what it’s like to be a plant, he said, will be the way to understand how and why they communicate — and make their secret lives a mystery no longer.”

Photo credit: MightyBoyBrian via photopin cc