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The Secret Life of Ants

Researchers at the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences are using RFID to understand how simple animals make complex decisions.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 01, 2009—While businesses harness more computing power to analyze data and improve decision-making, biologists note that animals with simple brains and limited information make complex decisions in the real world. A group of researchers at the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences in the United Kingdom has employed RFID to study Temnothorax albipennis, a common ant, to understand how ants decide as a colony where to nest.

"The thing about ants is the individual behaviors add up to make a collective decision," says Elva Robinson, leader of the research. "We need to identify each individual ant, and we're able to do that by using radio tags and putting readers over the entrances of the nests."

An ant fitted with a transponder goes about its normal business.
This species of ant nests in cracks in stones, and colonies often have to move because the stones break open and are no longer suitable homes. To learn how these ants decide which of several nests to move to, the researchers set up colonies and a variety of nests in their lab, and have been tracking their movements.

Initially, they painted each ant a different color and filmed their activity, then manually recorded movements by viewing the film. That was slow and labor-intensive. Someone hit on the idea of using RFID to track the ants, but finding a tag small enough wasn't easy. After some digging, the team found a company called PharmaSeq that has developed a transponder just 500 microns square.

The researchers glue a transponder to an ant's thorax, the middle section of the body, so it's right over the ant's center of gravity. "Initially, they try to knock the transponder off," says Robinson, "but after a few hours, they get used to it and go about their normal behavior."
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