When strolling through an unfamiliar grocery store, you may find yourself methodically walking down each aisle to ensure you find everything you need without crossing the same path twice. At times, you’ll stray from this orderly process, such as when you see a vibrant “sale” sign from across the store or realize that you forgot something.
According to the study in the journal iScience, some ants go about their search for food and shelter in a similar manner.
The researchers found that when a colony of rock ants is placed in an unfamiliar environment in a lab, the ants wander in a way that’s not as random as previously thought. The ants follow a systematic meandering pattern combined with some random movement—a method with the potential to optimize exploration in their natural environment.
“Previously, researchers in the field assumed that ants move in a pure random walk when searching for targets of which they don’t know their location,” says Stefan Popp, lead author of the paper and a graduate student in the ecology and evolutionary biology department at the University of Arizona. “We found that rock ants show a striking, regular meandering pattern when exploring the area around their nests.”
In Arizona, these ants can be found nesting between or under rocks in areas above elevations of 7,000 feet. These slow-moving critters are only about half the length of a medium grain of rice.
The study finds that the ants’ meandering, or zigzag, walking pattern may make their search more efficient than a purely random search. This is because the ants can explore a large area in less time, as they cross their own paths less frequently.
“These ants don’t form obvious foraging trails like many ants we are familiar with,” Popp says. “Instead, the colony depends on individual foragers finding resources, making their search strategy a crucial part of colony success.”