Ants in Space – Stanford University – BioEdOnline.org

Teachers! Students! A new citizen science project needs your help! You can help scientists collect data by repeating an experiment that was carried out in space. In January 2014 live colonies of pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) were taken to the International Space Station for a curious experiment. The experiment sought to understand whether worker ants change their search behavior in microgravity?

The experimental set up was designed by Dr. Deborah Gordon in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine Center for Education and Outreach (BioEdOnline.org). The set up exposes ants to new search areas in two stages. Studies have shown that ants adjust their search behavior based on frequency of interactions with other ants. As the area searched expands by opening of the gates the ant density decreases and so do their behavior.

Scientists would like to see the diversity of search behavior and gather a catalog of problem solving “the ant way“. There are close to 12 thousand ant species living all over the world except Antarctica and Polynesian islands. The ant species living in Buenos Aires may have evolved a different expandable search pattern compared to ants in Izmir. They simply adapted to find different food sources. Food sources can be clumped (a fruit tree) or widely distributed (seeds scattered all over) in nature. Using the experimental set up described in the main video you can repeat the experiment carried out in space station. The information you will collect using your local ant species will help build the diverse behavior catalog.

It is highly advised that each experiment is recorded on video. There are quite a few computer programs such as the Antracks software or IDTracker software that enable accurate detection and quantification of individual movements of many animals including ants:

Ants are wonderful systems to understand human nature. Ants, bees and wasps make up only 3 percent of animal diversity yet they may constitute up to 25 percent of the total animal biomass in land habitats. They can play such immense roles in nutrient cycling that they are also called “ecosystem engineers”. A mature leaf-cutter ant colony can consume leaves equal to the weight of a cow every day! During the ambitious Biosphere II experiment ants displayed some of the most significant biological activities within the enclosure.

Scientists have been observing and measuring their behavior both in their natural environments and also in laboratory. It is possible to raise ant colonies in captivity and test hypothesis by designing experimental nest set ups. There’s a growing ant keeping hobby movement from all over the world. Inside well-designed formicariums it is possible to maintain colonies of massive sizes.

The following video is a time-lapse observation of expandable search behavior experiments recorded in International Space Station and on Earth side by side. In space pavement ants had to spend more energy or perhaps more cognitive attention in order to be able to walk in microgravity conditions. Compared to their earth counterparts space ants had to work harder to remain bound to the surface of their artificial nest chambers. This slowed their movement. Indeed their search pattern changed. The motion trails are created by the faint siluettes of the ants as they cover distance:

Motion trails: Ant Experiments time-lapse from BCMCEO on Vimeo.

 

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