A study recently published in the journal “Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution” discussed ants’ ability to collectively search in zero gravity conditions. Researchers were happily surprised to find this when a collective of ants were taken to the International Space Station to study how these insects adapt to low or no gravity.
While ants did still float away from the walls of their enclosure they were able to use their teamwork abilities to navigate and discover new areas of the container. In the piece in “Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution” researchers stated, “The ants showed an impressive ability to walk on the surface in microgravity, and an even more remarkable capacity to regain their contact with the surface once they were tumbling around in the air.”
The implications of ants’ capabilities in microgravity can aid researchers in developing algorithms which could be implemented in robots who perform search and rescue missions; allowing them to cooperatively carry out exploration in difficult environments. Deborah Gordon, a biologist from Stanford University is this study’s lead researcher, she explains how ant behaviors were observed in space: they had eight groups of ants placed in special habitats each had gates that open to new different sized areas for the ants to enter into and collectively search to discover new portions.
An interesting observation from the research is that when confined to smaller spaces, ants would thoroughly, collectively inspect their enclosure, but when they reached larger, more open areas the collective would use straighter, narrower search paths to increase the efficiency of their search and maximize area covered.