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It is tempting to think of ant colonies as a role model for a super-efficient society in which each individual specilises in one task. This time-honoured analogy is challenged by a research that suggests that the insects' penchant for specialisation doesn't explain their extraordinary efficiency - reports The New Scientist.
Anna Dornhaus at the University of Arizona in Tucson color-coded over 1000 rock ants and then videotaped them as they foraged for food and built their nest. She defined efficiency by how quickly the ants completed the task , and specialisation by pinpointing which ants performed the same task repeatedly. To her surprise, specialists were no more likely to be efficient than non-specialists. In fact, some non-specialists were more efficient at a taks than a specialist! (PLoS Biology, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060285)
"Clearly natural selection hasn't perfected insect societies yet.," says bee expert Francis Ratneiks of the University of Sussex, UK. Dornhaus thinks that specialist ants may benefit the colony even if they are no more efficient because having at least some insects dedicated to one task might reduce confusion. We need to fight the urge to think of social animals in human terms, she says. "Ants may do things that are non-intuitive to us!"