ANTS! (Week 2, Day 2)


Summer is almost here, and with the return of the warn weather comes the return of the pests that I fight every year. Ants!
We’ve set up traps, though they aren’t gone yet. With a little bit of luck they will learn to avoid the indoors. With all this in mind, it becomes a little difficult to hear that ants are able to count.

How do we know that ants are able to count? In 2006 a trio of German and Swiss scientists, Wittlinger, Wehner, and Wolf, published the results of an experiment they performed on the Tunisian dessert ant. They noticed that when an ant is searching for food it travels in an apparently random zig-zag pattern, but once a food source is found the ant is some how able to walk directly back to their nest, despite sometimes being 50 meters away. Here is an excerpt from their abstract:

Here we test the hypothesis that navigating ants measure distances traveled by using some kind of step integrator, or “step counter.” We manipulated the lengths of the legs and, hence, the stride lengths, in freely walking ants. Animals with elongated (“stilts”) or shortened legs (“stumps”) take larger or shorter strides, respectively, and concomitantly misgauge travel distance. Travel distance is overestimated by experimental animals walking on stilts and underestimated by animals walking on stumps.

So there is evidence that ants can somehow instinctively count the number of steps they have taken, and use that information to compute the direction of home.

Meanwhile there are human societies that survived until the 20th century, apparently without the ability to count.

What are some other amazing feats of mathematics that living beings are able to do instinctively?



One thought on “ANTS! (Week 2, Day 2)

  1. I have always wondered about animals’ counting abilities. I once had a cat who had four kittens, and when they were old enough to start leaving their den (or whatever you call the place a cat hides her kittens), when they came back home she’d make sure all four of them entered the den ahead of her. But I don’t know if she was counting four kittens, or recognizing each individual kitten and mentally checking them off.

    Other math abilities – well, anything that moves can do calculus! This ant experiment is amazing, though. I suspect it’s very hard to devise an experiment that actually shows an organism counting.

    I suppose now’s a good time to mention Clever Hans, who famously wasn’t actually counting.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s