Decoding the ‘internet of ants’

Ants have no language, yet they manage to share complex messages. Could studying this ‘anternet’ help to reveal more about how our bodies work?

Could the way ants behave help us develop the internet – or even understand how cancer spreads?

Deborah Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University, studies ant colonies in the Arizona desert to find how they manage to accomplish complex tasks with no language and no hierarchical leadership system.  

She has found out the ants use simple interactions that can be combined to carry out much more complex tasks. Gordon calls this network the ‘anternet’ and believes the way it works could help us understand how information spreads, from how data is transferred over the internet to the workings of our brains.

Working with Harvester ants, Gordon and her colleagues say they have pinpointed a mechanism that determines how many foragers are sent out of the ant nest in much the same way that internet protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for the transfer of data. And the principle could also be used to track how cancer cells spread around the human body.

Deborah Gordon spoke to BBC Future at her Stanford University laboratory.

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