The Loh Down On Science

How ants play school will surprise you!

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An ant tandem run

Is that ant lost, or is it learning?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Meet Nigel Franks.  He's an animal-behavior researcher at the University of Bristol.  He and colleagues have shown that when faced with a catastrophe, ants teach.  

Like Mother Nature wielding a tornado, the scientists simulated the destruction of an ant nest.  But these kinder, gentler gods provided an intact nest nearby.  

In response, a first ant found its new digs and returned to teach a second ant the way.  In this so-called tandem run, the pupil slowly followed the leader, stopping along the way.  It even seemed to look around and survey the landmarks.  The pupil touched the teacher's hind legs when it was ready to move on.  Upon their return, the pair initiated a relay, teaching the route to another pair, and so on.  Once enough ants knew the way, the trained rescue squad quickly carried the remaining colony members to their new home.

So the next time you spot a pair of ants surveying your countertop, think twice before you strike.  Class may be in session.  Either that or a toaster raid. 

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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