Researchers at Stanford have observed that foraging harvester ants act like TCP/IP packets, so much so that they're calling the ants' behavior "the anternet".
Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, is an algorithm that manages data congestion on the Internet, and as such was integral in allowing the early web to scale up from a few dozen nodes to the billions in use today. Here's how it works: As a source, A, transfers a file to a destination, B, the file is broken into numbered packets. When B receives each packet, it sends an acknowledgment, or an ack, to A, that the packet arrived.
This feedback loop allows TCP to run congestion avoidance: If acks return at a slower rate than the data was sent out, that indicates that there is little bandwidth available, and the source throttles data transmission down accordingly. If acks return quickly, the source boosts its transmission speed. The process determines how much bandwidth is available and throttles data transmission accordingly.
It turns out that harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) behave nearly the same way when searching for food. Gordon has found that the rate at which harvester ants -- which forage for seeds as individuals -- leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.
A forager won't return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.
In the email Jason sends to guest editors, one of the rules is, "Don't embed any videos of ants trying to mate with their queen as their queen gets bit in the head by a spider." I thought it was an oddly specific rule, but, you know. Today, however, when I came upon a video of ants trying to mate with their queen as their queen gets bit in the head by a spider I felt like maybe you'd want to see it. I'm not going to embed it, because that would be breaking the rules, but here's the link because science. "A more macabre video from the insect kingdom would be hard to find".
PS The rule about not posting pictures of your cat is new as of last night.
This review of Superorganism, a new book by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, is chock full of fascinating facts about ant societies and how they organize themselves.
The progress of ants from this relatively primitive state to the complexity of the most finely tuned superorganisms leaves no doubt that the progress of human evolution has largely followed a path taken by the ants tens of millions of years earlier. Beginning as simple hunter-gatherers, some ants have learned to herd and milk bugs, just as we milk cattle and sheep. There are ants that take slaves, ants that lay their eggs in the nests of foreign ants (much like cuckoos do among birds), leaving the upbringing of their young to others, and there are even ants that have discovered agriculture. These agricultural ants represent the highest level of ant civilization, yet it is not plants that they cultivate, but mushrooms.
It's worth sitting through the annoying "in a world..." narration to see the structure of an immense colony of ants. The scientists poured 10 tons of concrete down into an abandoned ant colony, waited for it to harden, and then spent weeks excavating the results.
During the construction of the giant structure, it's estimated that the ants hauled 40 tons of dirt out of the holes, the equivalent of building the Great Wall of China. (via cyn-c)