A Lesson in Network Building from Ants

A two-year long field study recently provided a large data set consisting of several trail networks built by the Australian meat ant to connect different nests spread over a wide territory.

By studying these networks, researchers at Uppsala University, Fordham University, and the University of Sydney, have found the basic rules that allow ants to build efficient and low cost transport networks that can scale to larger networks.

“Ants are able to find a specific balance between cheapness, efficiency and robustness,” explains Tanya Latty, researcher in biology at the University of Sydney.

Specifically, they found that a simple model of network growth—the minimum linking model (MLM)—is sufficient to explain the growth of real ant colonies. The MLM method describes the rules for how to connect one nest to another. This method links the new nest to its closest nest or tree, as long as the distance between the two is minimal over all the nest–tree distances. Using this method, researchers could reproduce the structure (i.e., the distribution of the number of hubs per colony) of actual ant colonies. The researcher suggested that they could extend these finding to building efficient networks in applied settings. The MLM method produces networks higher values of efficiency and cost compared to similar methods, with only slight increases in cost.

“Once we have found what nature does, we have tried to apply the same simple rules to predict what would happen to man-made system, electric grids for example, if they were built by these ants,’ says Arianna Bottinelli, PhD student at Uppsala University.”

One specific application could be the building a new suburb, which requires connecting the power network of cities in a cheap but efficient way.

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