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Meet the ‘anternet’

Published on 27 August 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Deborah Gordon is a biologist at Standford who has spent the last 20 years studying ants. Each to their own, I say. She pooled her lot with computer scientist Balaji Prabhakar (also at Standford) and the pair have revealed a connection between how harvester ants behave as they search for food and Internet protocol.

According to Prabhakar: ‘The algorithm the ants were using to discover how much food there is available is essentially the same as that used in the Transmission Control Protocol.’

SearchNetworking defines TCP as ‘a set of rules (protocol) used along with the Internet Protocol (IP) to send data in the form of message units between computers over the Internet. While IP takes care of handling the actual delivery of the data, TCP takes care of keeping track of the individual units of data (called packets) that a message is divided into for efficient routing through the Internet’.

Meet the ‘anternet’And, believe it or not, these harvester ants mirror this activity. ‘Gordon has found that the rate at which harvester ants – which forage for seeds as individuals – leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability. A forager won’t return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.’

The work is published in the Aug. 23 issue of PLoS Computational Biology.

Image © David Louis Quinn/Pogolumina

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