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January 20, 2014


Ant under the microscope

Most people know that a monkey was the first mammal into Space, but I only just learned that 800 ants are at this very minute guests on the International Space Station (ISS). The idea is to observe how the the ants adapt their foraging behavior in microgravity conditions with a view to developing more intelligent robots. While this may not seem an obvious source of robotic inspiration, ants engage in collective behavior, or ‘distributed algorithms’ in robotics, to achieve a variety of objectives including foraging.

Professor Deborah M. Gordon, of Stanford University who leads the experiment created a series of eight rectangular habitats with dividers between each area. Each area had about 100 ants (Tetramorium caespitum) inside. When the dividers were in place, the ants were limited to their initial area with a correspondingly high density of ants. In this high density environment each ant foraged within a small area in what appeared to be a circular and random pattern. When the dividers were removed, the ants experienced a lower density environment and walked in straighter lines.

Apart from helping robotic technology, the experiment is being monitored by thousands of students across the US. These students are participating in live science while hopefully, gaining inspiration to work in space science, not to mention having fun at the same time. I for one never had a science project live from the ISS!

Professor Gordon pointed out that all animals have to adjust to microgravity environments, be it human, ape or insect. For example, the way nutrients circulate around cells differently or the way genes are expressed. By the same token, all animals need to re-adapt to Earth’s gravity on return. An amusing example comes from a Johnson Jumper spider that was a guest on the ISS in 2012. While the spider did adapt to microgravity, it also needed to re-adapt to earth on its return. For a short time, it kept jumping….and landing on its back.

But this experiment extends beyond the rarified atmosphere of Outer Space. It can involve you. Professor Gordon hopes that students round the world will record the collective action of their local ants when foraging. All you need is to build a couple of interconnected habitats with dividers so that you can experiment with both high and low density populations. Ants also are fascinating to examine under a microscope…..but that’s for a later blog. Meanwhile, enjoy the video of these brave “antronauts”!