Creature Feature: Ants Don’t Have Traffic Jams

By Allie Miller and Jeanette Lim from the Biomimcry Institute

Drivers in Miami, Florida, spend almost 50 hours a year stuck in traffic. New York City drivers spend close to 60 hours. Washington, DC, drivers honk their horns for a whopping 65 hours per year. The leafcutter ant? Zero hours. Ants avoid traffic jams all while carrying  food for their colonies, navigating miles of terrain, and coordinating with tens of thousands of other ants. Talk about efficiency!

Leafcutter ants observed in Mexico. Photo by Scott Loarie (CC BY-NC). Submitted to the Great Nature Project.
Leafcutter ants observed in Mexico. Photo by Scott Loarie (CC BY-NC-3.0). Submitted to the Great Nature Project.

Ant colonies are complex ecosystems that can hold millions of different ants and span several square acres. Managing this complex system requires a range of different roles. In the leafcutter species, one of these roles is the forager. Foraging ants are tasked with collecting leaf fragments and bringing them back to the colony to nourish the ants’ fungus farm (the topic of another story…). Each day, thousands of these foraging ants travel to and from the colony multiple times. To make the most of these trips, you might think that foragers would collect as much as possible. Yet, sometimes, less is more.

One reason why forager ants don’t carry extra large loads is to ease the burden on the ants who process the material. Upon returning to the colony, foragers pass fragments off to processor ants, who distribute the material amongst the colony. With more foragers than processors, a monster truck-sized load would overwhelm the processors and make the overall colony operations sluggish.

Another reason why smaller loads are better is because they help foragers maintain speed and efficiency within the collective. Imagine a group of  foragers that includes one body builder and nine cross country runners. Obviously, the body builder could carry much more than the runners. But if carrying a heavier load made the body builder even slightly slower than the runners, the overall time it takes for all ten ants to return to the colony would increase. At the end of the day, less leaf matter would be brought back to the colony.  Additionally, because ants travel in a single file line, if that body builder were at the front of the line, all ants behind her would be slowed down. Over time, these little delays could impact colonies in a big way.

What can humans learn from this resourceful strategy?

How might we apply forager behaviors to our own lives? Perhaps we could use the leafcutter ants’ system to design more efficient highways, more reliable mail delivery systems, or a more equitable distribution of workloads in office environments. Maybe computer programmers could model computational software on forager behavior.

We live in a fast-paced world, where getting from point A to point B in a flash is important. Doesn’t it make sense to use nature to get there?

Have you ever looked to nature for inspiration to solve a problem? You can see more examples of how to learn from nature by browsing the AskNature collection of Great Nature Project photos.

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Submit your photos of leafcutter ants or any other living thing to the Great Nature Project. You can keep track of your observations and get help from other people to identify what you saw. Browse or search the photo stream to see other amazing living things. Create an account to your share your photos of plants and animals.

More to learn and do

Interested in classroom activities related to biomimicry? Find free resources on the Biomimicry Institute’s Biomimicry Education Network.

To learn more about the leafcutter ant’s cool strategy and how we might apply it to make our human world more sustainable, check out AskNature.

Interested in contributing to AskNature? Learn more about sharing graphics, interning, and more.

Allie Miller is obtaining her master’s degree in industrial design at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and holds a B.A. in studio art and biology from Mount Holyoke College. She’s been volunteering with the Biomimicry Institute since Fall 2013, when her first project was crafting content and illustrations about the golden-fronted woodpecker. Jeanette Lim is the AskNature content coordinator and gets to talk about nature’s wonders and inspiration with other nature lovers. Her favorite animal is the hagfish.

1236515_167355886784233_468906998_nJeanette Lim works for the Biomimicry Institute and is a frequent guest blogger for the Great Nature Project.

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