Dec. 12 - Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are spying on ant colonies, conducting research that could one day lead to the development of ant-like robots that work together as a team. But first, the scientists want to know how the ants organize themselves to build their complex subterranean nests, and they're using old and new technologies to find out. Ben Gruber reports.
How do you keep track of one ant amongst an army of a million? Researcher Daria Monaenkova's preferred method is to paint them. She says it's painstaking work. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DARIA MONAENKOVA, RESEARCHER, GEORGIA TECH, SAYING: "It's, I would say, an art. The ants are hydrophobic and it is impossible to paint them with regular markers so we used oil based paints and we put the little dots on their abdomen." And when the paint dries, the ants are returned to their colony, where Dan Goldman follows their every move. He wants to know how the ants work together to create the complex subterranean structures that house and protect ant colonies all over the world. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAN GOLDMAN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS, GEORGIA TECH, SAYING: "These animals can dig complicated nests which the colony lives and grows and reproduces in more or less any kind of soil, from sandy soils to clay-like soils and they do it rapidly and effectively and we want to understand how they do it so well." To accomplish this, Goldman and his team are using high speed cameras and CT scans to follow the ants' progression as they dig their nests. They adjust soil types and moisture content over several experiments in the lab, to gauge how well the ants adapt to the different environments. Goldman says the ants are full of surprises. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAN GOLDMAN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS, GEORGIA TECH, SAYING: "We figured the ants would go in with their mandibles, their little jaws and they would grab a grain of soil or a pellet of soil and just pull it out, yank it out of the ground and deposit at the surface. Turns out it is much more complicated than that." And , in a first for science, the researchers have documented how fire ants use their antennae as tools for digging. They were previously thought to be used exclusively as sensory organs. They also observed that no matter the soil type, the ants always dig their tunnels at the same width. Goldman says the big question now is to figure out how hundreds of thousands of ants work together to dig these sprawling, complex tunnels so efficiently. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAN GOLDMAN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS, GEORGIA TECH, SAYING: "We are interested in ants as an example of an organism that collectively, in other words in a group or a large number of organisms, and socially create a structure which would be impossible for an individual to create." And why is it so important to learn how to dig from ants? Daria Monaenkova says the answer will become obvious in decades to come. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DARIA MONAENKOVA, RESEARCHER, GEORGIA TECH, SAYING: "In the very far future you do not have to drill the hole through the ground. But instead you can send little robots." Little robots that can explore the subterranean environment on Mars and planets beyond, co-operating as they burrow for secrets hidden beneath the surface.