August 26, 2012

Radio Backpacks Help Scientists Monitor Ant Colony

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

One thousand rare and protected ants have been fitted with tiny little backpacks to try and understand the social network of how a colony works.

A research team from the University of York is fitting tiny radio receivers to a colony of hairy wood ants in the world's first experiment to find out how they communicate and travel between nests.

The nests are located on the National Trust's Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire, UK, which is a hotspot for these internationally protected ants.  The Estate has more than a thousand nests and is home to upwards of 50 million worker ants.

During this three-year project, the research team will catch the ants and carefully attach a radio receiver one millimeter in size to each ant.  Although the ants are only the size of an adult thumbnail, the receivers will not harm or interfere with them in any way. They will allow the researchers to study how the ants communicate with each other in their colonies. Each colony consists of several nests connected by ant "super highways," with multiple queens spread between the nests.

The receivers, or tags, act like a barcode tag.

"It allows you to build up a picture of how each individual ant behaves, and this builds up to make the colony-wide behavior," Samuel Ellis, University of York biologist, told BBC News.

"You stick all the tags on, and then you come back the next day.

The scanner is literally like a barcode reader, so you position yourself on one of the trails between the nests, and, as the ants run past, you scan it to see which ant it is."

The research will help shape the conservationist work that is done on the Longshaw Estate.

"We are doing some tree removal and felling over the next few years," stated Jenny Gerrans, learning officer for the National Trust at Longshaw.

"As part of that, we will be mapping the ants' nests, and we will be able to give the information from this study to the contractors that will be carrying out the work.

"They will then be able to make sure that they do not ruin the tracks or paths that the ants use."

Though the original purpose of the study is to improve management of the Longshaw Estate by the National Trust, computer programmers are interested in the results as well. The data on insect communication could improve human data networks in the development of social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

“This research is about trying to find out how the ants communicate and commute between the vast networks of nests and how they travel in this environment," said Ellis. “The radio receivers act like a barcode to mark out each individual ant. A single ant is not particularly clever but is part of an elaborate system that is clearly performing very effectively at Longshaw. The way the ants use this network has important implications for how they interact with their environment. And the way information is passed through the network may even have implications for our information and telecommunications networks.”

Ant tagging is slated to begin in the summer of 2013.