Could insights from ants help people build better transportation networks?

Could the way ants build their nests provide insights into reducing traffic congestion on the 405 Freeway? A study by UCLA biologists reveals that the way ants construct their nests could inspire more efficient human transportation systems.

The researchers explored whether evolutionary history or current ecological conditions influenced ant nest construction. Surprisingly, they found that neither could explain the variations observed among different ant species’ nests. Instead, the study suggests that the environment in which ants forage and their food transport methods primarily determine nest construction.

The implication for human transportation systems is that tailoring roads to match the movement of goods and people in cities could lead to greater efficiency. For example, dedicated lanes or roads for trucks traveling to and from logistics hubs like ports, warehouses, and distribution centers might alleviate congestion on Southern California’s freeways.

Sean O’Fallon, a UCLA doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, commented, “Ants deal with the same issues we deal with when it comes to living in crowded spaces.”

The research, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, involved analyzing data from 439 ant nests representing 31 different species. The scientists found that nest structures were primarily influenced by factors such as whether ants foraged alone or in groups and their methods of recruiting other ants to help find and carry food.

Noa Pinter-Wollman, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, explained, “You can think of the nest itself as a transportation network — it’s where ants live, but it’s also a kind of highway network they move things in and out of.”

The researchers examined four common foraging strategies employed by ants, including hunting individually, bringing food to the nest to recruit others, forming continuous trails, and leaving pheromone trails for mass recruitment.

While the study expected that ant species using mass recruitment would have larger entrance chambers in their nests, allowing more ants to interact, it also anticipated greater network density within their nests. However, the research found that, regardless of the foraging strategy, network density remained relatively low, even in large nests.

The researchers suggest that this lower network density may be due to architectural considerations, as too many connections between chambers could weaken the nest’s structural integrity and potentially lead to its collapse.

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