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article imageOp-Ed: Tool-using ants logic vs researchers — Ants 1, Researchers 0 ?

By Paul Wallis     Oct 8, 2020 in Science
Wuhan - Black imported fire ants have just given Chinese researchers a lesson in practical engineering. Faced with a problem in gathering sugar water, the ants created sand structures to draw out the sugar water safely.
The researchers at Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan, set the ants a demanding challenge. The ants were given containers of sugar water. At first, the ants could float and collect the sugar water. The researchers then changed the surface tension of the water, making it dangerous to the ants. They could drown while foraging under these conditions.
The ants responded by putting sand into the water, creating a sand structure which was so effective that they could drain half the sugar water out of the containers “in five minutes”.
The truly fascinating aspect of this is that the ants had a ready-made solution, excuse the pun, for both dodging risk and harvesting the sugar water. Ants are known to use tools for collecting liquids, but what intrigued the researchers was the obvious cognitive response.
As anyone inflicted with old-style animal behaviourism knows, many actions of animals are automatically attributed to “instinct”. This rather superficial view neglects the fact that behaviours don’t just happen, let alone instincts. A situation must pre-exist for the acquisition of skills and any development of responsive behaviours.
The cognitive response, however, is in a ball park that may not have been designed yet. The response was highly efficient, coordinated, and effective. The ants didn’t hold a meeting and discuss risk management; they responded with the right solution, first time. This response is believed to stem from their harvesting of honeydew and other sometimes tricky liquids.
Leaving aside the thunderous issue of whether humans recognize intelligence when they see it – These ants clearly equated the sugar water problem with a recognizable experience, and reacted accordingly. More to the point, they also produced a highly efficient structure to do so.
Some speculation
When it comes to assessing cognitive responses by ants, wasps, or bees, it’s been a long road for researchers. A habituated behaviour in a familiar environment may well be instinctive. It’s more than a bit lazy to see a response to an unfamiliar problem in an unfamiliar environment as “instinct”, though.
As a (very) amateur, too-occasional myrmecologist, I’ve seen individual ants show very good situational awareness to new or developing situations on many occasions. A large number of situationally aware individuals working on various cues is definitely some sort of practical corporate entity.
Studies by Edward O. Wilson and others have shown a lot of cooperative activities by all types of ants in all types of scenarios. Fire ants forming unsinkable balls to survive flooding, for example, is a group response to a dangerous situation. Army ant protective bivouacs while on the march are another structural response. There are almost too many ant cooperative behaviours to describe. Colonies may include millions of individuals, working cooperatively on multiple tasks.
The environmental responses may or may not be instinctive and/or adapted to specific circumstances, but they’re all very practical. They are also invariably successful.
To extend the idea just a bit - Foraging ants are faced with all sorts of dangers on a daily basis. Sugar is a staple food, so a lot of foraging effort goes into securing sugar in any available form. One forager finds a source of sugar, and others are detailed to collect it.
So there’s a party of involved ants collecting the sugar; if the situation changes, the foraging must go on, but the methods must change. The situation in the lab research involved sourcing the right material to harvest the sugar water.
Now ask, what sort of cognitive behaviour runs like this:
“They’ve changed the surface tension of the water; it’s dangerous.”
“We’ll need some sand.”
“Then we’ll have to build a structure…”.
Not only did the ants in this research discover the problem, which was actually pretty difficult, but they also had to find the right resource to manage it. Also note that they solved another, bigger problem - Sourcing essential food for the colony. That’s pretty unmistakable cognitive intelligence, by any standards. It’s a matter of opinion whether humans would understand and respond to that problem as efficiently as that.
Methinks the researchers will have to “go to the ants” quite a lot more to get to the truth of these issues.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about ant cognitive intelligence, behaviorism, Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan, Edward O Wilson
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