You might wonder how ants are repeatedly able to lift objects many times their weight with relative ease – it’s the equivalent of you successfully lifting a car on your own. What’s intrigued researchers is how a small group of them are able to move a large insect a long distance by working together.
How are they able to navigate back home, and know how to leverage something as big as a dragonfly? It turns out that all it takes is a single ant. Without language, they are capable of signaling to the rest of the group a change in direction just by pulling towards another angle with their end of the load.
“The individual ant has the idea of how to pass an obstacle but lacks the muscle power to move the load,” said Ofer Feinerman, a researcher from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.
“The group is there to amplify the leader’s strength so that she can actually implement her idea.”
Once taking the lead, she can then relay the signal to other ants that arrive on the scene.
“As far as we can tell the scout is no different than the other ants,” Feinerman explained in an email.
“No one designates the leader, she – not he – designates herself because she has current knowledge about the correct direction.”
Besides people, very few animals have been known to organize when carrying heavy loads by group.
The study made us of Paratrechina longicornis, an invasive species of ants that has thrived across the globe, and known for carrying insects much larger than itself. In the experiment, however, they used pieces of cereal. In addition to simply carrying the load, the ants are interested in efficiency as well. Up to 15 of the little ants banding together to carry one piece of the Cheerios brought them to their top speed.
The study was published in Nature Communications.