Posted by: obscuripes | March 10, 2011

Overnight Insect Gunpowder with a Side of Bleu Cheese

Soldiermorph introduced the amazing ability of swarming ants in Africa to take down enfeebled livestock by sheer numbers. What is more amazing about ant swarm intelligence is its amazing efficiency in action. Ants on their own are incredibly simple organisms and move in a chaotic fashion, but once a few ant scouts find a food source and determine a path to it from the nest, an entire ant colony can be mobilized to transfer a message by chain reaction and also follow one path to the food source in a short amount of time. It seems the human method of shouting the message would mobilize people nearly instantly, but remember ants individually only have a few reactions to all stimuli: wander in meandering fashion, follow pheromone trails, antennate to identify stimuli, attack, pick up object or food, or return along pheromone trails. In this way, they are robotic in their input and output. Signaling is accomplished through a relatively simple reaction to pheromone cocktails detected by sensors on their antennae, or in some cases by direct tactile communication by ants that go head to head. While each set of interactions is again only so complicated, the rapid spread and mobilization of ants appears to obey some kind of organization and efficiency that human beings can only associate with “intelligence.”

My own experience with ants swarm intelligence has boiled down to the house ant Tapinoma. I collected the ant through pain-staking aspiration: sucking up the ant through a rubber hose into a 50 milliliter test tube, and thus also inhaling its pungent poison into my lungs. This particular ant smells like bleu cheese when crushed between one’s fingers. The smell of bleu cheese is created by the weak toxin the ant produces, and thus the toxin also has an effect on one’s lungs in higher concentrations. I stored 300 of these black sugar ant in semi-sealed soft-drink bottles, thinking plastic wrap and rubber bands over the tops would be sufficient for their living conditions. I made plans to increase the ants’ creature comforts the next day.

I came in the next day to find the ants had assembled all the parts necessary for a miniature cannon from within the confines of the 2 liter soft-drink bottle. The ants assailed me and prevented entry into the lab, and put quite a few holes in my wall. I only recently patched these holes with spackle. I imagine these ants had found plentiful resources in the lab itself: the flammables such as ethanol and ether, but I had trouble understanding where all the other components for gunpowder could be found in our tame, humble genetics lab. Furthermore, I wondered how 300 ants alone could have concocted the formula for the powder (of which I can only remember saltpeter, bat guano, and sulfur pulled from a volcano), much less gather the materials from the other room in one night. The ants could not in fact see me from their position in the soft-drink bottle, so they only managed to aim the cannon in my general direction, calculating the curve of the projectile’s descent using complex vector physics they had somehow mastered, much as their cousin desert ants in the Sahara calculate the quickest and least scorching path of return to their nest through complex multivariable algebra. A mere ducking motion allowed me to enter the lab and obliterate the most advanced miniature cannon of its time with a swat of my hand.

Well, to be honest, that didn’t happen, except in the back corners of my brain. But to see similar feats of ant engineering, see a brilliant archetypal movie called “Phase 4.” I got a good night’s sleep, and walked into my office where the soft-drink bottles sat. I stared into the translucent cityscape to see absolutely no ants. Not a single ant out of 300 was left behind in a mass exodus carried out overnight. I managed to spot a single ant crawling across the desk. I sighed, given the actual collection of the ants had caused a hoarse throat and hours and hours of sweat in the pleasant spring sunshine, and I pulled out the aspirator, preparing to search the entire room for as many ants as I could find. The single ant I spotted was too quick for me and hid underneath the dirt pot I had used to sift ants free. Lifting up the pot, I blinked to find all three hundred ants had accumulated in a 5 x 5 inch square underneath the pot.

At that exact moment, I tried to comprehend how exactly the ants, without a queen or any brood to speak of and organize their movements, had managed this feat. I imagined one ant had found a tiny escape from the nest, but instead of just wandering out and not realizing that it indeed had found the only escape (there were in fact probably hundreds of potential escape holes) the ant had likely then come upon the dirty, dark, moist, claustrophobic space underneath the pot. Instead of continuing to wander, some programmed message had been signaled in its tiny ant brain saying: this is a good place to nest. This would be assuming the ant and the all other basically identical ants had been in some kind of state that insisted that they find a more ideal location for nesting. Furthermore, in looking for such a place, the ant had somehow been programmed to create a trail of volatile pheromones that remained long enough for the ant to high-tail it back to the pitiful soft-drink bottle staging ground, go through that miniscule hole again, and start alerting every ant it ran into. By no means can I know now how often each new ant contacted would rush along the same trail the ant had made to this new Chosen Land of milk and honey, and how often that new ant would instead wander itself, informing other ants of this pheromone Oregon trail, or both? Nonetheless, in one night, all ants had been contacted, not one child left behind, and the entire nest evacuated into the dark confines of the pot.

All this I realized in an epiphany of understanding at what could be called ant “intelligence”. Then the 300 ants proceeded to crawl in every direction, spreading out across every surface, up the walls and down to the floor. By great force of lung power, I collected almost every ant and placed them in a better shelter. As the ants crawled in great lines up the wall, I was almost reminded of an upside-down game of Space Invaders.

This new shelter I made for the ants also had escape routes, of course, but given each ant had to swim a ten-inch moat of accidentally poisonous water to escape, there was little chance of return for any ant lucky enough to survive the moat crossing (and there were quite a few) to cross back once its pheromone trail had been broken.

Excited by this new concept of swarm ‘intelligence’ used by air traffic controllers, particle physicists, river geologists, and “Matrix” animators, I hope to acquire a best-selling pulpy and likely B-quality scifi book by Frank Schating call “The Swarm.” Supposedly some super intelligent swarm of bacteria has by some means understood the threat humans have to the Earth and through great long distance communication, engineered human destruction from the world’s oceans. I hope to be intrigued for at least a few hours of reading.


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