In these days of high-ranking executives single-handedly toppling entire corporations, businesses looking for new strategies might take a lesson from the ant. New research has scientists one step closer to understanding how thousands of ants can run a colony with no supervision whatsoever.
For 20 years, ecologist Deborah Gordon of Stanford University has been trying to understand how individual ants in a colony with no central control decide which jobs they should be doing. Through her observations of the red harvester ant in the New Mexico desert, Gordon discovered that each ant's behavior depends on the tasks carried out by the other ants in the colony. Until now, nobody could determine how an ant knew what their co-workers were up to.
Gordon had already discovered that ants carry chemicals on their bodies that vary depending on which task they are doing. The chemicals are a mixture of hydrocarbons that the ants use to protect themselves from drying out, and ants that spend more time outside in the harsh desert climate have a different mixture. To see if ants could smell the difference, Gordon and chemical ecologist Michael Greene coated tiny glass beads with various hydrocarbon mixtures. Normally, patroller ants are the first to emerge from a colony, and forgers wait to see if the patrollers return safely before venturing out to look for food. In their experiment, Greene and Gordon kidnapped the patrollers and placed a bead covered in the same hydrocarbons found on patrollers into the mouth of the nest every 10 seconds to mimic the return of the patrollers. Sure enough, the foragers took the cue and went out to work. But when blank beads or beads covered with hydrocarbons like those of nest-maintenance workers were placed in the nest, the foragers failed to emerge, they report in the 1 May issue of Nature.
The results may have an impact well beyond the realm of ecology, says John Holland, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "The things they're learning here are going to inspire others to think about simple signals in other complex systems," he says. "With just a few chemical signals, the whole system can behave with a lot of flexibility to changing conditions." Similar examples could crop up in research on other complex systems such as the brain, the immune system, or computer software; and businesses interested in having more distributed control may take notice as well, he says.