Ant Transportation Networks

What do ant colonies and railroad systems have in common? Both serve to transport goods and individuals from place to place, and need to balance the often competing goals of doing so efficiently and at low cost, while also remaining robust to potential disruptions to the network. We are currently working to understand how simple organisms can work together in groups to create and maintain such transportation networks, using a multidisciplinary combination of field and laboratory experiments with turtle ants, along with mathematical and computational models.

Last summer, we conducted a series of experiments designed to discover how turtle ants move within a tree-like branching structure, and how individual movement choices lead to collective decisions about where to nest within that structure. We now have a good understanding of how individual ants make choices at branching junctions; the next step will be to describe how these choices are modified when many ants are exploring together, potentially in the presence of competitors.

Project 1: Test and improve our existing software pipeline, which uses computer vision to automatically track ant movement from videos taken in the lab.

Project 2: Model collective exploration and nest choice, using agent-based simulations, differential equation models and/or network approaches. 

Project 3: Plan and perform pilot studies for the next set of experiments, to be conducted over the summer 

Essay Prompt: What interests you about these projects and what do you hope to gain from the research experience? What makes you a good fit for one or more of these projects?

Name of research group, project, or lab
HMC Bee Lab
Why join this research group or lab?

You will be part of a team of students working on a set of related interdisciplinary projects, using mathematics, computation and engineering to solve problems of biological interest. The variety of techniques and approaches will give you an opportunity to explore your interests and develop new skills. This project has connections to the study of complex systems and artificial intelligence, and has potential applications to the development of computational optimization algorithms. There may be opportunities to continue the work in a senior thesis, present at a regional or national conference, and/or co-author future publications. The work is funded by the National Science Foundation, and could lead to funded travel opportunities including an ant collecting trip to the Florida Keys or summer research at the University of York.

Logistics Information:
Project categories
Computer Science
Student ranks applicable
Student qualifications

Here is a list of skills/interests that could be useful, or which you might develop along the way. They're not necessarily requirements, but if you already have experience or interest in any of them, be sure to mention it in your essay.

  • Strong programming experience in Python (required for Project 1, helpful for Project 2)
  • Linux/UNIX command line and shell scripting, high performance computing (desired for Project 1)
  • Computer vision and image processing, e.g. using OpenCV (helpful for Project 1)
  • Mathematical modeling (desired for Project 2)
  • Mathematical software such as Mathematica and/or MATLAB (helpful for Project 2)
  • Simulation modeling (helpful for Project 2)
  • Data science and visualization, particularly with R (helpful for all projects)
  • Machine shop certification and experience (helpful for Project 3)
  • Experimental design (helpful for Project 3)
  • Ecology and animal behavior (helpful for all projects)
Time commitment
Spring - Part Time
Academic Credit
Number of openings
Techniques learned

Besides some combination of the skills and techniques listed under qualifications, you will learn to read and discuss scientific literature, and to communicate across disciplinary boundaries and with the public about your work.

Contact Information:
Matina Donaldson-Matasci
Associate Professor of Biology
Name of project director or principal investigator
Matina Donaldson-Matasci
Email address of project director or principal investigator
6 sp. | 14 appl.
Hours per week
Spring - Part Time
Project categories
Engineering (+3)
BiologyComputer ScienceEngineeringMathematics