Longhorn crazy ants are named for their indirect, ambulatory movement that seemingly makes no sense. But a new study shows their odd pattern is due to a complicated system of cooperation and group effort.
As National Geographic reports, "The researchers were surprised when they first started watching the crazy ants that the burdened critters never traveled straight for the nest—a meandering strategy that put the ants at risk of attack along the way." But the seemingly scatterbrained movements are due to the constant recalibration and reorganization of the group.
When a group of longhorn ants is tasked with carrying a heavy load, they divide themselves into one of two roles: carriers and scouts. The scouts go ahead and determine the direction the group should head, then return and act like air traffic controllers, pushing the group back on track if they have drifted off course. Each scout/leader only assumes that role for 10 to 15 seconds, sort of like very, very short-term president.
Shortly after they return to the group, the scouts lose their sense of where they should be headed, and swap roles with the carriers, and so on.
The study debunks the common misconception that ants are only intelligent as a collective. By sensing direction and leading the group, single ants have demonstrated intellect. As researcher Ofer Feinerman says, "The individuals come with the solution. The group gives it the muscle power."