Robot helps reveal how ants pass on knowledge

Scientists have developed a small robotics to understand how ants teach each other.

The team built the robotics to mimic the behavior of rock ants that use individual teaching, in which an ant that has discovered a much better new nest can teach another individual the route.

The results, published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology, confirm that most of the important elements of teaching in these ants are now understood because the teacher ant can be replaced. by a machine.

The key to this teaching process is the tandem program where one ant literally leads another ant quite slowly along a road to the new nest. The student ant learns the route well enough to find its own way back and then lead a race in tandem with another ant to the new nest, and so on.

Professor Nigel Franks of Bristol’s Faculty of Biological Sciences said: “Teaching is so vital in our own lives that we spend a lot of time teaching others or teaching ourselves. This should make us wonder if teaching actually occurs among non-humans. And, in fact, the first instance where teaching was rigorously demonstrated in any other animal was in an ant. The team wanted to determine what was necessary and sufficient in such teaching. If they could build a robot that successfully replaced the teacher, it should show that they largely understood all the essentials of this process.

The researchers built a large arena so that there is an appreciable distance between the old ant nest, intentionally of poor quality, and a new one much better where the ants could be driven by a robotic. A gantry was placed at the top of the arena to move back and forth with a small sliding robotic attached to it, so the scientists could direct the robot to move along straight roads. or wavy. Attractive scent glands, from a worker ant, were attached to the robotic to give it the pheromones of a teacher ant.

Professor Franks explained: “We have waited for an ant to leave the old nest and placed the robot brooch, adorned with attractive pheromones, directly in front of it. The pinhead was programmed to move to the new nest either on a straight path or on a beautiful We had to allow the robot to be interrupted in its journey, by us, so that we could wait for the ant next catches up with us after she looks around to learn landmark details.

“When the follower ant was led by robotics to the new nest, we allowed it to examine the new nest and then, at its own pace, begin its journey back. We then used the gantry to automatically follow the way back. ant.”

The team discovered that the robot had indeed successfully taught the route to the apprentice ant. The ants knew the way back to the old nest, whether they took a winding or straight path.

Professor Franks explained: “A straight path might be more fast, but a winding path would give the next ant more time to better learn the cue details so it can find its way back as efficiently as if it had been on a straight path.

“Basically, we were able to compare the performance of the ants that the robotics had taught with those that we transported to the new nest site and who had not had the opportunity to learn the route. Learned ants found their way back much faster. and successfully.”

The experiments were carried out by undergraduate students Jacob Podesta, who is now a PhD student at York, and Edward Jarvis, who was also an MSc student in the laboratory of Professor Nigel Franks. The programming of the gantry was carried out by Dr. Alan Worley and all statistical analyzes were conducted by Dr. Ana Sendova-Franks.

Their approach should make it possible to question more precisely what successful teaching entails.

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