Traffic jams are a frustrating part of modern life, and many dream of the kind of uncongested roadway systems shown in futuristic movies like Minority Report. But some researchers have suggested that ideal traffic management algorithms already exist—in ants.
University of Sydney entomologist Audrey Dussutour told Wired Science that she has “been working with ants for eight years, and [has] never seen a traffic jam.”1 Dr. Dussutour already knew that ants organize themselves for optimum efficiency when they are in wide paths with many lanes. In their new study, she and her coauthors reported that when the insects traveled on the equivalent of a one-lane road, they employed tactics enabling them to maximize their overall efficiency.2
One of the “solutions…to prevent overcrowding” on a narrow track is that outbound ants gave way to inbound ants carrying loads. Further, non-laden inbound ants slowed down rather than speeding up to pass the slower, laden ants in front of them. “The insects could waste up to 64 s [seconds] on a 300 cm bridge. However, by slowing down and following an unimpeded cargo-carrying ant, the empty-handed foragers would only be delayed by 32 s, returning faster than if they’d muscled past.”3 Also, “unladen returning ants avoided outbound foragers by moving to the side.”2
If the ants did not have these algorithms, then head-on collisions would occur, slowing ant traffic to the point that the food would not reach the nest and the colony would collapse!
Sam Besher, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pointed out an additional benefit: “They’re managing the information flow, too.”1 The decrease in head-on contacts reduced the number of individual communications. But even with the minimized contact, the outbound ants still somehow received critical information, such as direction and food availability, from the inbound.
Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, wrote, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”4 Wisdom gained from ant traffic regulation could be used to manage vehicular traffic, though there would be significant hindrances. First, if something were to go wrong with vehicles’ algorithms, a full-speed collision could be fatal, whereas for ants it is not. Second, humans would have to relinquish autonomous control of their vehicles, an unprecedented mass decision.
Could nature have selected mutations that led to ant algorithms, as neo-Darwinism maintains? This would seem impossible, for without each algorithm already present and integrated with pheromone and tactile sensory inputsâ€•as well as the motor control and muscular systemsâ€•the ants would all die. Nor are ants observed learning new programs. Thus, these algorithms must have formed together all at once, as would have been the case if they were created by the God of the Bible.
- Keim, B. Taking Traffic Control Lessons—From Ants. WIRED Science. Posted on wired.com February 3, 2009, accessed February 4, 2009.
- Dussutour, A. et al. 2009. Priority rules govern the organization of traffic on foraging trails under crowding conditions in the leaf-cutting ant Atta colombica. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 212: 499-505.
- Knight, K. Ants Obey Road Rules to Keep Traffic Flowing. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 212: i. Posted on jeb.biologists.org January 30, 2009, accessed February 5, 2009.
- Proverbs 6:6.
* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer.
Article posted on February 17, 2009.