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. To do this, we need to test and improve our existing software pipeline, which uses computer vision to automatically track ant movement from videos taken in the lab. This will allow us to collect much more data on ant turning choices in the challenging context when multiple ants are navigating the same structure. With this data, we will be able to describe how turtle ant colonies use communication to coordinate collective decisions.
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.