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Ants in Space? How They Keep Their Footing

Apr 02, 2015 03:47 PM EDT
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Ants: they are tenacious little bugs that can be found just about anywhere. Nothing stops an ant from foraging for food and finding new nooks and crannies to explore - not even, it seems, an absence of gravity.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, which details the first results from an ongoing project on the International Space Station (ISS).

The project, aptly named Ants in Space, involves a colony of ants that were first sent to space in a supply rocket back in January 2014. Once aboard the ISS, they were left to do what ants do best - expand their nest and forage. However, those tasks are easier said than done in space. Early observations showed the ants slipping from the surfaces they walked on, as they didn't have the help of gravity to hold them down.

Ecologist Deborah Gordon explained in a past NASA release that observing the ants struggle to forage in real-time can help build problem solving algorithms, many of which could be applied to cooperative robots designed to work together to accomplish tasks in microgravity settings.

"This was an opportunity to see how ants solve the problem of collective search in microgravity," said Gordon. "Ants are very diverse ecologically, so they have many diverse search algorithms, and we know only a few of them."

Gordon's study used the pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum), which is common throughout most of the United States and found in forests, river valleys, concrete jungles, and even your kitchen countertop. Their ability to adapt to extremely varied environments made them an ideal candidate to pioneer space. (Scroll to read on...)

After seeing initial pictures and video from the space station experiment, Gordon has even gone as far as to compare the ants' system to the human brain. Much like in ants, she explained, there is a lack of central control. It is not as if one part of the brain is handing out orders to the organ's countless neurons and clusters. Instead, the brain works on an exceptionally complex system of action and reaction that mysteriously turns electric signaling into "thought" as we know it. Likewise, while an ant colony seems to be goal oriented and driven - some even having personalities - the queen is not commanding it all. She just happens to be a key cog in a very complex clock.

And because microgravity changes the circumstances in how those different cogs interact with one another, the behavior of an ant colony can change - something that Gordon is quickly learning.

"When I first saw [the initial pictures] I thought, 'Oh no, they've mounted the habitat vertically.' But then I realized that of course it doesn't matter," she added during a recent TED Talk. "The idea here is that the ants are working so hard to hang on to the wall or the floor or whatever you call it, that they are less likely to interact and so the relationship of how crowded they are and how often they meet would change."

According to the published results, astronauts aboard the ISS installed eight colonies of 80 ants in small transparent plastic boxes. The insects were then gradually introduced to more and more space where they could forage and explore. However, more space also meant they would have a harder time keeping their footing or finding fellow foragers. Researchers were then tasked with noting which foraging patterns kept the most 6-legged explorers' feet on the 'ground.'

Gordon and her team have now even set up a website with instructions for school classes to run the same experiment in Earth gravity - that is, observing how ants effectively spread out when given more and more room to work. You can watch a full summary video of the project via Bio Education Online here.

"They will plan their own investigations, collect data from their ants, and compare it to the images and videos of the ants on the space station," added Gregory Vogt, assistant professor with the Center for Educational Outreach at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Eventually, he explained, that data will be collected into a massive database of ant behavior that could be invaluable for researchers in the future.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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