Ants Have Teacher-Pupil Relations, Researchers Report

January 11, 2006

When you were younger, did a family member ever show you how to find the local grocery store? Members of the ant species Temnothorax albipennis have a similar family tradition, according to a new study.

The finding may be the first known example of a teacher-pupil relationship in a nonhuman animal, according to Nigel Franks, a biologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

"While it's well known that animals will mimic each other, so one animal is learning from another … there's sort of a two-way street in teaching that defines true teaching," he said.

For example, even though your guide could get to the store faster without you in tow, he or she slowly and patiently taught you the way so that you could one day make the trip on your own.

In a similar manner, ants in a T. albipennis colony use a technique known as tandem running to teach each other how to get from the nest to a food stash. Franks and colleague Tom Richardson report the find in tomorrow's issue of the science journal Nature.

In a tandem run, the lead ant only continues forward when frequently tapped on its legs and abdomen by the following ant's antennae. When a gap appears between the two, each adjusts its speed to close it.

The researchers show that the lead ant in the tandem pair could reach the food stash four times faster when not slowed by a follower.

But the follower ant finds the food faster than when searching alone and is ultimately able to quickly run solo errands. The process likely increases the fitness of the entire ant colony, the researchers say, by making the ants more efficient.

Teaching Defined

According to Franks, the lead ant's sacrifice is a hallmark of teaching that until now has been shown only in humans.

He and Richardson write that "an individual is a teacher if it modifies its behavior in the presence of a naïve observer, at some initial cost to itself, in order to set an example so that the other individual can learn more quickly."

In addition, the Bristol researchers say that teaching involves a two-way relationship between the teacher and pupil.

Continued on Next Page >>


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