125 Stanford Stories

NO. 52
Stanford Today

Lessons from ants: Deborah Gordon

Stanford ecologist’s research has implications for land-use planning, systems analysis and many other fields

Video courtesy of TED

Ants are tiny, but pervasive. Invasive ant species make their way into our kitchens, our yards, our nature preserves. If we’re bigger and smarter, why can’t we conquer them?

Stanford ecologist Deborah M. Gordon has spent decades probing how ants communicate and why ant colonies succeed. Her groundbreaking research shows how simple interactions among individuals shape the collective behavior of colonies. It has implications for conservation biology, land-use planning, systems analysis and many other fields.

“Fears about ants and the stories we tell about them,” Gordon said, “all reflect what makes them interesting.

“They’re so effective. They’re everywhere. And they do it without central control.”

Gordon’s research has broadened to consider human-designed systems that also lack central control, such as the Internet. For example, as she told a TED audience in 2014,  the harvester ants she studies in the desert reveal an algorithm to regulate the flow of foragers that’s very similar to the algorithm used by the Internet to regulate the flow of data. In both cases, the algorithms serve to regulate operating costs, whether of bandwidth or of water that ants in the desert must expend to obtain food.

Simple interactions add up

Ants interact by touching antennae. Their actions are governed by the frequency of their interactions with other ants. What the touches prompt the ants to do depends on the species and its environment. One thing ants may be doing when apparently just scurrying around is searching for food, and Gordon studies how these seemingly random searches are organized.

For 23 years, her research has included tracking the progress of an invasive ant species, the Argentine ant, at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. While Argentine ants have traveled the globe, few studies have examined in depth how they take over an endemic species’ turf.

As with many invasive species, Argentine ants are helped by human proximity. They travel in nursery products, among other ways, and they need to be close to water, making homes and gardens attractive destinations.

“We thought that we would watch the Argentine ants taking over Jasper Ridge, but they haven’t,” Gordon said. “Instead, the native ants are holding their ground.”

One reason lies in the Stanford preserve’s size.

“Jasper Ridge is near residential and green areas, but it’s large,” Gordon said. “In human military terms, the center of Jasper Ridge is farther away from human sources of water than the ants’ supply lines could cover.”

Another was found by Stanford undergraduates in a Sophomore College class led by Gordon in which students discovered a new chemical weapon and published the research. Not only did the native ants outcompete the Argentine ants for food, the students found, but they also defended their nests by secreting a white substance that poisoned the invaders.

Gordon looks at ants through many lenses and in many places.

She was invited to send an ant container aboard the International Space Station to see if weightlessness would disrupt ants’ search behavior. (It did.)

Fostering K-12 science 

With the Stanford Graduate School of Education’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, she devised a $2 foam version of the space-station ant habitat for K-12 school science projects, along with an online lesson plan with TED Ed video.

Gordon hopes children all over the world will do the experiment with their area’s own ants, eventually creating a data bank of search-pattern variations among some of the 14,000 known ant species. Further, she hopes to put the data online so kids will know what their global counterparts are doing with the same experiment.

Her latest work examines ants’ dopamine receptors to see how individuals send communications and respond to each other: “It’s a new direction for me.”

Watch Gordon demo the space-station ant habitat as well as the version designed for K-12 science.