Ants, collective search and colonising the International Space Station

1 Apr 2015

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Researchers have established that ants have “remarkable agility” when working in zero gravity after a series of tests aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Last summer a bunch of ants were sent up for tasks on the ISS, to measure their performance with regards collective searches when in space.

The results of the ISS observations, which were studied by a team led by Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon, shows that the ants are markedly slower at investigating areas than when on Earth, with the aid of gravity.

They consistently lost their footing, often falling off the surface they were searching, before impressively finding a way to grab back on, either by floating back to place or grabbing a fellow ant and readjusting themselves.

The test was pretty basic, releasing the ants into larger and larger areas after periods of time, and watching how they go about searching the entirety of the zone.

ISS study of ants

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio observing the activities of the Ants In Space CSI-06 investigation aboard the ISS, via NASA.

“It looks as though they had a little trouble in microgravity,” admits Gordon. “The arena was very shallow, the ceiling low so they weren’t floating around but still they had to work harder just to move. So their interactions were influenced by that, so we’ll analyse the data.

"All ants have to perform collective search and we don't know how they do it. There may be very interesting algorithms for collective search that we haven't discovered," said Gordon.

Do it yourself

Establishing these elements of collective search could allow greater progression in robotic innovations, helping to program robots to search in groups, without the need for a central control centre.

Indeed Gordon and her team are seeking help here on Earth, asking schoolkids everywhere to do the same test on their native ant species – with a dedicated website set up to collect the data.

Professor Deborah Gordon's ant collective search test

The paper finds that its unclear just how much effort was put in by the ants to stay on the surface, although clues were in the way they sometimes slipped off, often their resultant spinning showing they had applied pressure just before losing their footing.

“Sometimes an ant attached itself to another ant to climb back down to the surface. Once back at the surface an ant appeared to hold on to it by flattening its body toward the surface, a movement characteristic of distantly related arboreal.”

There may be more tests in future, with Gordon interested in further microgravitational studies. "I’ve learned from talking to people involved in this experiment, there is a lot of really interesting biological changes that go on in microgravity, for example the way that nutrients circulate around cells, the way genes are expressed so we have a lot to learn," she said.

Thankfully, nobody opened a large packet of ridged crisps aboard the ISS during the test. If that had of happened, we'd be left hailing our ant overlords…

Ants image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

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