As neat as it already is that ants will self-assemble themselves into rafts when flood waters hit, neater still may be that they remember their places and jobs on the raft from one flood to the next.
That possibility has emerged in new research out of the University of California Riverside (UCR), which found a species of ant exhibiting memory and hinting at job specialization during raft-making.
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Scientists at UCR put Forica selysi worker ants in two lab-generated floods and then recorded how they organized the raft they formed to stay afloat, color-coding them to keep track of individual ants.
The researchers found that the same individual ants tended to take up the same positions – top, middle, sides, or base - in the raft, from flood to flood, indicating both memory and potential specialization (as yet unidentified) of their roles.
What's more, the ants adapted their positions and shape of the raft when brood, or immature, ants were present on the raft versus when the young ones were not on board.
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The fact that ants can self-assemble – linking their bodies together as one to build structures such as ladders – isn't new, but the scientists say their findings mark the first example of memory being documented in ant self-assemblies.
The study was led by Jessica Purcell, an assistant professor of entomology at UCR and has been published online in the journal The Science of Nature. It's a next step that builds on work from Purcell and her colleagues in a 2014 study that found worker ants making sure to give the queen the best seat on the raft.
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"These elaborate rafts are some of the most visually stunning examples of cooperation in ants," Purcell said in a statement. "They are just plain cool. Although people have observed self-assemblages in the past, it's exciting to make new strides in understanding how individuals coordinate to build these structures."