Ants Are Basically the Internet but More Harmful to Picnics
On their own, ants are pretty stupid, but when they are all working together, they can be unnervingly clever, capable of building elaborate nests, making bridges and rafts from their own bodies, and even creating their own primitive aphid ranches. As it turns out, even the Internet itself is taking some unexpected lessons from the world of hymenoptera. When biologists and computer scientists from Stanford University put their heads together to try and learn more about how ant colonies make the decision to send out foragers for food, they found that the decision-making process is remarkably similar to Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) — the method by which websites determine how much bandwidth they can spare for a file transfer.
TCP measures how fast information is being downloaded from a source by measuring the time it takes for pings sent out with that data to return. If pings take a long time to get back, then the receiver is slow, and the transmitter cools off to match. If pings return quickly, the transmitter sends out data at a higher rate to keep up.
Harvester ants in Arizona apparently use a simliar technique — which researchers are calling “the anternet,” because hey, the get to make up the name, alright? — to determine when times are tough and it’s best to stay inside, and when it’s time to go on the dangerous mission to raid your pantry in service to their terrifying queen and her squirming, hungry brood.
Similarly, if ants that are foraging return to the colony with food quickly, that means that food is plentiful — there are lots of seeds on the ground, for example, or someone just dropped a whole bag of Cheetos and decided not to turn around for it. This provides other ants in the colony their cue to get while the getting is good and start foraging as well. On the other hand, if the first wave of food scouts takes their time coming back with grub for the grubs, it means that pickings are slim, and the energy and effort of other ants in the colony is better spent elsewhere, maximizing the efficiency of the entire colony.
“Ants have discovered an algorithm that we know well, and they’ve been doing it for millions of years,” said Stanford computer scientist Balaji Prabhakar. Though we would point out that, if ants have been doing it for millions of years, maybe it was really humans who just discovered this algorithm.