Unlike People, Ants Never Have Traffic Jams

Photo Credit: Flickr

Ever notice how ants are always on the move? Their trails seem to go for miles–from an ant’s perspective anyway–but they’re never stalled or stuck waiting for traffic ahead to clear.

They’re on a magical freeway where everyone is moving at the same speed with no bottlenecks or accidents.

How does this work? And can humans learn to accomplish the same (please please please)?

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A study on ant collective traffic flow says ants are able to adapt their behavior to circumstances as they change, which makes them “immune” to traffic jams.

Their collective behavior is fascinating for a number of reasons. If traveling individually, they can think on an individual basis. But when crowded together, they behave as if they are one unit.

In 2008, German scientists conducted an experiment where they created an ant motorway that had several possible routes, including interchanges, to and from a sugary food. They expected to see the interchanges clog. But when the ants returning to the nest ran into ants going to the food, they blocked the interchange and forced the other ants to find an alternate route to the food. Traffic to and from the food continued to flow.

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Even in the confined space of their tunnels, ants worked together to prevent road obstructions, researchers at Georgia Tech discovered. They observed that only one-third of the colony worked on digging a tunnel at a time. The rest were doing their other usual tasks. When one ant happened to come across another ant digging in the tunnel, the first ant would quickly turn around and find an alternate route.

Scientists in Argentina got the same results with ants on bridges of different widths. Even when capacity of a bridge reached 80%, the ants would continue to move smoothly across. Human traffic becomes stressed at 40% capacity.

What does this mean?

Ants are masters at modifying their behavior no matter what obstacles stand in their way. They self-regulate their movements so their paths never exceed capacity. Of course, they don’t have traffic lights or other regulating impediments they must obey–they don’t care about points or fines.

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What they do care about is food. Colony survival is their only goal.

People have their own interests, goals and places they need to be. But it’s clear how increasing road capacity may not be the answer to smoother flowing traffic. One solution could be forcing drivers to find alternate routes–just like thee ants do.

For now, researchers are looking at ant behavior with an eye on the future–one where driverless cars can be programmed for collective traffic flow with the goal of moving people as efficiently as possible.