Robot helps reveal how ants pass on knowledge

Ant leads other ant to new nest known as tandem run. Credit: Norasmah Basari and Nigel R Franks

Scientists have developed a small robot to understand how ants learn from each other.

The team built the robot to mimic the behavior of rock ants using one-to-one lessons, where an ant that has discovered a much better new nest can teach another individual the route there.

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

The key to this learning process is tandem running, where one ant literally leads the other ant very slowly along a route to the new nest. The apprentice ant learns the route so well that it can find its own way back home and then lead a tandem run with another ant to the new nest, and so on.

Prof. dr. Nigel Franks of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences said: “Education is so important in our own lives that we spend a lot of time instructing others or teaching it ourselves. This should make us question whether education is actually taking place among non-human animals.” And in fact the first case where teaching was rigorously demonstrated was in another animal, in an ant.” The team wanted to determine what was necessary and sufficient in such education, and if they could build a robot that would successfully replace the teacher, it should demonstrate that they largely understood all the essential elements in this process.

Robot helps reveal how ants pass on knowledge

Diagram of ant scent gland. Credit: Norasmah Basari

The researchers built a large arena so that there was a significant distance between the old ant nest, which was intentionally made of low quality, and a new, much better nest that ants could be guided to by a robot. A gantry was placed on top of the arena to move back and forth with a small sliding robot attached to it, allowing the scientists to direct the robot to move along straight or undulating routes. Attractive scent glands from a worker ant were attached to the robot to give it the pheromones of an ant teacher.

Prof. dr. Franks explained: “We waited for an ant to leave the old nest and placed the robotic pin, adorned with attractive pheromones, right in front of it. The pinhead was programmed to go to the new nest, either on a straight path or on a beautifully curvy path. We had to make sure the robot was interrupted by us during its journey so that we could wait for the next ant to catch up after it looked around to learn landmarks.

“Once the follower ant was guided to the new nest by the robot, we had it explore the new nest and then, on its own time, begin its return journey. We then used the portal to automatically track the path of the returning ant.”

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

Prof. dr. Franks explained, “A straight path might be faster, but a winding path would give more time for the next ant to learn landmarks better so that it can find its way home just as efficiently as if it had been on a straight path.”

Robot helps reveal how ants pass on knowledge

Prof Nigel Franks shows Sir David Attenborough the portal at the opening of the new Life Sciences Building in 2014. Credit: University of Bristol

“Critically, we were able to compare the performance of the ants the robot had learned with the ants we carried to the site of the new nest that hadn’t had a chance to learn the route. The learned ants found much faster their way home and with success.”

The experiments were conducted by students Jacob Podesta, who is now a Ph.D. student in York, and Edward Jarvis, who was also a master’s student at Professor Nigel Franks’ Lab. The portal programming was performed by Dr. Alan Worley and all statistical analyzes were directed by Dr. Ana Sendova-Franks.

Their approach should make it possible to examine more closely what exactly is involved in successful teaching.

Matable ants travel faster with detours

More information:
Robot communication with ants, Journal of Experimental Biology (2022). DOI: 10.1242/jeb.244106

Provided by the University of Bristol

Quote: Robot helps reveal how ants transmit knowledge (2022, August 9,), retrieved September 23, 2022 from

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