Ants: Teacher-Pupil Feedback

January 12, 2006

Possibly the first case of a two-way teacher-pupil relationship in a non-human animal is reported in a Brief Communication in the January 12, 2006 Nature. Tandem running is a behaviour seen in some ant species, where one ant leads another from the nest to a food source by using signals that control the speed and route of the journey. Nigel Franks and Tom Richardson analyse these signals in Temnothorax albipennis ants and find that tandem running is an example of teaching via bidirectional feedback between teacher and pupil, showing that this social skill has evolved successfully without recourse to a big brain.

The leader ant only continues the tandem run when frequently tapped on its legs and abdomen by the following ant’s antennae, changing its normal behaviour for the benefit of its pupil. When the gap between the pair becomes too large, each adjusts its speed to close the gap as a result of bidirectional communication. The follower ants find food quicker when tandem running than when going it alone, suggesting that the follower learns more quickly as a result of the leader’s help, say the authors. But this assistance comes at a cost—the leader ant would normally have reached the food around four times faster if not hampered by a follower.

Abstract © 2006 Nature

“Teaching in tandem-running ants,” Nigel Franks, Tom Richardson, Nature, January 12, 2006

Nigel R. Franks, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

You can hear Nigel Franks talk about this work in the Nature Podcast of 01 11 06, available at the iTunes Music store or from Nature.

Stephen C. Pratt’s Lab web site at Arizona State University has a video of a tandem run.