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Ants Teach to Benefit Others

Research has revealed that worker ants sacrifice time and efficiency in order to teach other ants how to find food—a practice that is beneficial for the society as a whole.

When a female ant of the species Temnothorax albipennis goes out to find food, she will often choose another ant to accompany her. If the second ant doesn't know the way to the food source, the leader will teach her through a process called "tandem running." As the teacher runs along the path to food, the student follows behind and will often stop to locate landmarks—creating a gap between herself and the leader. When the student is ready, she will run forward and tap her teacher on her back legs.

This process is extremely beneficial for the student. Ants participating in tandem running located a food source in an average of 201 seconds, while ants searching for food on their own took an average of 310 seconds (a 35 percent difference). However, the process is detrimental to the teachers. Research indicated that the lead ants traveled up to four times faster when they were not accompanied by a student.

So why do the leaders sacrifice their time and efficiency to teach others? According to study leader Nigel Franks, "They are very closely related nest mates and their society as a whole will benefit." This occurs as the students gradually learn their way and are able to teach other ants, which increases the efficiency of the entire population.

Indeed, researchers also observed that some teacher-ants would simply carry a follower on their backs and drop them off at the food source. This technique was three times faster than tandem running. However, the carried ants were not able to remember how to get back to the food source—probably because they were upside down and backwards.

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