Ants are capable of complex problem-solving strategies that could be widely applied as optimization techniques. An individual ant searching for food walks in random ways, biologists found. Yet the collective foraging behaviour of ants goes well beyond that, as a mathematical study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals: The animal movements at a certain point change from chaos to order. This happens in a surprisingly efficient self-organized way. Understanding the ants could help analyze similar phenomena – for instance how humans roam in the internet.
“Ants have a nest so they need something like a strategy to bring home the food they find,” says lead-author Lixiang Li who is affiliated both to the Information Security Center, State Key Laboratory of Networking and Switching Technology, at the Beijing University of Posts and Communications, and to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “We argue that this is a factor, largely underestimated so far, that actually determines their behavior.”
The Chinese-German research team basically put almost everything that is known about the foraging of ants into equations and algorithms and fed this into their computers. They assume that there are three stages of the complex feed-search movements of an ant colony: Initially, scout ants indeed circle around in a seemingly chaotic way. When exhausted, they go back to the nest to eat and rest. However, when one of them finds some food in the vicinity of the colony, it takes a tiny piece of it to the nest, leaving a trail of a scent-emanating substance called pheromones.