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A Giant Game of Telephone

Memories – One Working Brain

Ant colonies work like a well-oiled machine. Each ant has his/her own job and pace within their society. Even without a central structure of control, individual ants manage to be highly productive members of their community, fulfilling crucial roles that allow their colony to survive and thrive. 

Individual ants live, on average, for roughly the span of one year, but colonies will prevail through the lifetime of their queen, who can survive up to 20-30 years. While each ant has their own clear memories, it appears as though their memories surpass their own life spans, living within the colony. Memories cause beings to adjust their behaviors based on previous experiences. So, when an ant finds food in one particular area, they can be observed returning to the food source time and time again. Or in the case of encounters with danger, ants may learn how to protect themselves or avoid certain situations that would leave them vulnerable. But when this phenomenon surpasses individual action, it becomes a fascinating display of collective survival systems.  

Passing the Torch

In the case of red wood ant colonies, it appears that these memories are shared across generations. For years on end, the ants would reuse the same trail systems through their forest to access the same trees each year. A myrmecologist (an entomologist who specializes in the study of ants) by the name of Rainer Rosengren studied these ants and found that the ants appear to undergo a training session following the winter months. After emerging from their winter-time shelter, newborn foraging ants will follow “elder” ants that were alive the previous warm seasons as they travel their old trails as they search for materials and food. When the elder ants soon pass, the new foragers will adopt these trails, using them to navigate their way far off from the colony and back. 

Waves of Paths

In a similar fashion, harvester ants will shape foraging areas like a moving, expanding and contracting waves of webs. The foragers will travel up to 65 feet from their colony traveling in different patterns and creating new paths that other ants will follow that day. These actions are not spurred on by any official organization of the colony, rather a collective hive-like mentality causes the ants to move in these shifting patterns.  

Annoying the Ants

In further experiments with ant colonies, researchers placed obstacles in different habitual paths of the foragers. While many of the disturbances only actually directly affected certain groups of the ants the colony as a whole began to adjust their day to day activity to all accommodate changes. Furthermore, once the obstacles were removed, the ants still continued to avoid those areas and acted according to the changes they had become accustomed to. This ultimately proved that a collective memory of the ants was preserved, resulting in adjusted behaviors. 

All of this explains why ants have a tendency to find their way back into your homes and pantries. They operate as though they are all part of a giant game of telephone, passing information and memories on through generations. 

Citations 

Ant Information & Fun Facts About Ants (N/A) Myrmecology. Available at: http://www.myrmecology.org (Accessed: June 2020). 

Gordon, D. (2018) Ant Colonies Retain Memories That Outlast the Lifespans of Individuals, Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ant-colonies-retain-memories-outlast-lifespans-individuals-180971022/ (Accessed: June 2020). 

Sawe, B. (2018) Do Ant’s Hibernate During the Winter?, WorldAtlas. Available at: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/do-ants-hibernate-where-do-ants-go-in-winter.html (Accessed: June 2020).