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How to study ants. Numerical competence using their own communicative means and applying ideas of information theory.

Title:How to study ants. Numerical competence using their own communicative means and applying ideas of information theory.
Authors: Zhanna Reznikova and Boris Ryabko
Series:Linköping Electronic Articles in Computer and Information Science
ISSN 1401-9841
Issue:Vol. 6(2001): nr 015
URL: http://www.ep.liu.se/ea/cis/2001/015/

Abstract: The main point of proposed approach to study ants’ cognitive abilities is that our experiments provide a situation in which insects have to transmit information quantitatively known to the experimentalist in order to obtain food. One may estimate some properties of ant intelligence by measuring complexity of tasks they solve in order to pass definite pieces of information from scouts to foragers.

Our previous experiments, basing on ideas of Information Theory, have shown that ants are able to memorize and transmit messages concerning sequence of turns toward a trough of syrup and use the simplest regularities to compress the information. To reveal counting and number related skills, we suggested red wood ants Formica polyctena to transmit information on the number and coordinates of objects. One of the experimental set-ups consisted of a “tree trunk” with branches that ended in empty troughs, except for one which was filled with syrup. Another set-up consisted of a lattice which simulated Cartesian coordinates. The foragers of F. polyctena were separated into teams of 5-8 individuals , each with one scout. All laboratory ants were marked with coloured labels. To start the experiment, an ant scout was placed at the randomly numbered trough containing food and then returned to the nest on its own. The duration of the contact between foragers and the scout was measured. Then we removed the scout and the foragers had to search for the food by themselves. The experiments were so devised as to eliminate all possible ways that may help to find food, except for distant homing. It turns out that the ants are able to count within several tens, and transmit this information to their nestmates. The analysis of time duration of ants’ contacts enable us to create a hypothesis of how they use numbers and coordinates in their communication. We suppose that only a few highly social ant species use such a complex communication system based on cognitive processes. At the same time, we believe that the experimental schemes described can be used to study the communication systems and numerical competence of other animals.


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