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Cambridge University Science Magazine
If you’ve ever been stuck in a traffic jam and wondered if there was a better way, you might be interested to learn that yes, there is, and you can thank the ants who figured it out. Researchers at Toulouse University, Arizona State, and the University of Adelaide recently described how ants manage to move as a collective in a steady bidirectional stream, even at very high densities. Replicating how Argentine ants, their ant of choice, have to travel back and forth from a food source to their nest, the researchers set up a bridge between the ants’ home and some tasty sucrose solution. They showed that even with a bridge width of just 5mm, colonies of 26500 ants were able to maintain flow back and forth across the bridge to gather food. A few key factors seemed important in achieving this feat: the ants adjusted their speed based on crowding, restrained themselves from entering crowded paths, and kept small talk to a minimum if they did collide. Human traffic starts slowing at just 40% capacity, but these ants soldiered on at even 80%. Unidirectional roads mean we might not start copying the ants just yet, but once autonomous cars come in perhaps we should look to these cooperatively-minded critters for suggestions.