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When is it optimal to build a trail?

July 07, 2014

When is it optimal to build a trail?

Tom Bochynek could not have chosen a more fitting spot to ask what lessons nature may hold for the transfer of human cargo and information

Tom Bochynek could not have chosen a more fitting spot to ask what lessons nature may hold for the transfer of human cargo and information. As four percent of global seafaring commerce sailed past his research site on the Panama Canal’s Barro Colorado Island, the Ph.D. student at Monash University in Australia studies the trail-clearing behavior of leafcutter ant colonies with as many as five million individuals.

“I’m trying to step in between IT and biology because I like the idea of using natural phenomena to create human artifacts,” he said. “We can learn from these colonies because they are very big and resemble cities. The fact that they create permanent roads the same way we do has implications for our systems as well.”

When a colony decides to carve a path through the cluttered forest, it is making a major investment. They remove all leaf litter and even flatten the surface. “I’m looking at their motivation for doing this, what the payoffs and what the costs are, and how these things are communicated throughout the colony,” said Bochynek. “When does it make sense to start cleaning a trail of leaf litter and soil to increase transport speed?”

Bochynek, the lone computational biologist at Monash’s information technology school, looks at this as an optimality problem. His experiments ranged from using a drone to observe foraging in the canopy to a hand-held garden cultivator to cover trails with debris. He will now try to build a model to tease apart the rules of trail-clearing behavior of the colony.

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