After praising the wisdom of the ant, a science writer reveals little of his own.
The date is August 21. The place is Current Biology. The perpetrator is Michael Gross, a science writer at Oxford. For 30 paragraphs, he dazzles readers with the wonders of the ant brain. In “How Ants Find Their Way” (Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 16, R615-R618, 21 August 2012, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.004), he waxes eloquent about how smart the ants are and how little we humans know about how they navigate. Then, in the only mention of evolution in the article, Gross commits a serious logical faux pas – best appreciated after a look at the amazing ant.
Surely each of us, pestered as we might be about ants in the kitchen, has marveled at how they so quickly establish their trails – communication networks that may traverse many meters (a long hike for an ant). Disrupt the trail and, before long, they have found a new way. How do they do it? “Insects use a wide range of tools for orientation, including visual memory, smell, and counting steps,” the summary states. “The tricky question is how they combine and compute different kinds of inputs, and whether their methods can help us understand more complex brains or create artificial ones.” Right off the bat we learn that ants compute. How did a computer get into a brain smaller than a pinhead? Let’s review seven of the applications (in modern parlance, apps) available in their tiny navigation computers.
(1) The first technique an ant uses to find its way is to count its steps. “Essentially, when the ant leaves its nest to go foraging, it counts the steps and keeps a record of how many steps it is away from home at any given time, like a pedometer,” Gross writes (see 6/29/2006). “In addition, it also records changes in direction.” There’s an app for that – right in the ant’s brain: the “path integrator”. It’s an “unflappable” tool that works even when mischievous experimenters try to get the ant off track….
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