Ants investigate the housing market when searching for their ideal home

02 October 2013

Research published today in Royal Society Journal Biology Letters reveals that ants consider the value of their property when searching for a new home.

Colonies of rock ants (Temnothorax albipennis) need to find ideal homes for the safety and productivity of the queen mother and all of her offspring.  They are regularly confronted with the dilemma of whether to move to a better property or remain in their current one, but unlike humans who are susceptible to housing bubbles, ants seem to invest in their housing market in ways that are consistent and rational.

PhD student Carolina Doran and Professor Nigel R. Franks from the University of Bristol showed experimentally that in order to be ahead of the game, rock ants continually monitor their neighbouring real estate so as to know exactly what new homes are potentially available. Moreover, their search effort is tuned to the quality of the nest they currently inhabit. They put more effort into finding new homes when they are in a poor one and search less when they are in deluxe accommodation.

The experiment used 15 different ant colonies. The colonies where placed in accommodation of varying quality. The better their nest, the fewer ants went out to search for a better one. This result demonstrates that colonies are able to rank the quality of the nests they currently occupy by allocating the appropriate number of individuals to scout for an alternative. Furthermore, this also demonstrates a remarkable ability to invest in information gathering according to resource utility, in an economical way.

Carolina Doran said: "This strategy of adjusting their information gathering according to their actual needs and the real value of higher rungs on the property ladder may help ants to evaluate their housing market in a measured and thorough way that puts many of us to shame."