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What can ants teach us?

Small wonders: What ants can teach us
Small wonders: What ants can teach us 06:28

This story was originally broadcast on "Sunday Morning" on July 24, 2011.

When most people think about ants – if they think about them at all – they think of pests in the pantry or on a picnic. But in Belize, the ant is the king of the jungle ... constantly on the hunt, swarming under every rock, and lurking in almost every flower.

In the Belizean rainforest there are several hundred different ant species – dozens in the treetops alone, said Mark Moffett, biologist, author, photographer and ant-enthusiast almost from birth.

"I learned early that ants are controlling the world under our feet," he said. "Down there as an infant I would watch them doing all of these things that were very human-like – building roads, working together to collect food. Ants do all kinds of things that even primates, like a chimpanzee, don't have to deal with."

Mark Moffett and correspondent Faith Salie observe ants going about their jobs.   CBS News

Take the leaf-cutter ant. These insects live in societies of millions, and feeding all those millions of mandibles requires a lot of work. 

"This is a tough job, and their jaws get quite worn down by it," Moffett said. "Their jaws, however, contain a lot of zinc, so they're essentially living can openers that can grab onto the leaf from one side and tear through with that other tooth from the other side the way you use a little portable can opener."

A lot of ants carry leaves with hitchhikers on them. "This was something that early explorers even pointed out: Why are these little ants climbing on top of the leaves and getting hauled along?" Moffett said. "Well, one reason is it probably costs the colony less energy for them to stand on the leaves than to walk themselves. So, this is just good economics."

Mark Moffett
Leaf cutter ants have a tendency to hitchhike.  Mark Moffett

"Carpooling!" said correspondent Faith Salie. "These leafcutters are carrying their booty back to the colony. But they're not gonna eat the leaves?"

"No, they don't actually eat these leaves. And you would think they would 'cause they're carrying literally pound after pound of leaf down this tree. But they actually turn them into a mulch on which they raise a fungus. They're fungus-eating ants."

They're totally farmers! In fact, said Moffett, "they do everything you think human farmers do."

With behavior this complicated, they must be pretty smart, right? No! According to Deborah Gordon, professor of biology at Stanford, "Ants are not smart. In fact, if you watch an ant for any length of time, you're gonna end up wanting to help it, because ants are really very inept.

"But what's amazing about ants is that, in the aggregate, all of these inept creatures accomplish amazing feats as colonies," she said.

And according to Gordon, they do it all without a boss. "In an ant colony, there's nobody in charge. There are no bureaucrats. There are no foremen. There are no managers. There is nobody telling anybody what to do," she said.

"We put a lot of effort into thinking through how to organize some of the things that we try to do as groups," said Gordon. "Ants don't put in any effort at all. They're pretty messy about it, and it works really well."

Most ants, it turns out, simply "follow the crowd." And now it turns out scientists are following ants to attack one of life's most frustrating experiences: air travel.

Salie asked Doug Lawson, who was a systems analyst at Southwest Airlines for some 20 years, "So, Southwest Airlines said, 'Help us figure out the most efficient way to help us get our passengers on a plane,' and you said, 'I know! I'll use ants'?"

"Because I know they do complicated things with simple rules," Lawson said. "We discovered that there is a better order in taking your seat."

He used computer-simulated ants to determine the most efficient way of boarding a plane – which turned out to be open seating. "Southwest's way of boarding without seat numbers is actually more efficient than when I board another airline and know exactly what my seat is?" asked Salie.

"Right. When we simulated what the different airlines are doing, it turns out that with assigned seats, there's a one-third chance that you're going to ask two people to get up, whereas open seating – since the middle seat is the undesirable one – generally that's the one that's last to be filled, which means only one person is likely to get up, the person sitting near the aisle," said Lawson.

"Now, did these ants have carry-on baggage? Were these ants cranky?" asked Salie.

"Yeah, we left out bad behavior," Lawson laughed.

So, ants may not be smart, but they can be efficient – something to ponder while waiting in the airport security line.
Moffett said, "Arguably, humans are too smart for the functioning of the whole society. It pays to be individually stupid! This is the wisdom-of-the-crowds idea brought to ants. Basically, all those little ants with their mostly ignorant choices, out of all that emerges a smart society."

All of which is to say, the lowly ant is actually pretty impressive.

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: George Pozderec. 

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