Ant Tunnel Building -- The Secret to Ant Efficiency Is Idleness

It has been too long since we shared in this Blog. It has been a very busy summer with 2.5 months on the road for vacation (one month in Lake Superior beach front house in the cool of June, one week at SIAM ED18 meeting in Portland OR and some family visiting there, two weeks at Manhattan College, Riverdale NY - the Bronx - for two separate NSF sponsored SIMIODE workshops, and a week at MathFest 2018 in Denver CO followed by refreshming break into the Rockies!) Then there is all the catching up, for such travel takes a toll.

In several workshops we share the experience of leading a Modeling Scenario activity with workshop attendees so they could experience being students and bring the approach back to their classroom. This was from the Modeling Scenario 1-007-Ant Tunnel Building in SIMIODE.

Let us share some related news. . . but first ponder ant tunnel building. . . 

We trust that you are gearing up for your school year and that you are planning to include more applications and modeling, perhaps upfront and central, as you motivate your students to learn mathematics.

In this week's New York Times Science Section in an article entitled, "The Secret to Ant Efficiency Is Idleness," there is a remarkable article about ant tunnel building. See . Basically, it is broader than our single ant modeling effort and its conclusion are richly supported by researchers who have written up their work in SCIENCE. See J. Aguilar, D. Monaenkova, V. Linevich, W. Savoie, B. Dutta, H.-S. Kuan, M. D. Betterton, M. A. D. Goodisman, and D. I. Goldman. "Collective clog control: Optimizing traffic flow in confined biological and robophysical excavation, " SCIENCE 17 Aug 2018: Vol. 361, Issue 6403, pp. 672-677. 

Here are summaries from the SCIENCE article page,

When fewer workers are more efficient

A narrow passageway can easily become clogged or jammed if too much traffic tries to enter at once or there is competition between the flow of traffic in each direction. Aguilar et al. studied the collective excavation observed when ants build their nests. Because of the unequal workload distribution, the optimal excavation rate is achieved when a part of the ant collective is inactive. Numerical simulations and the behavior of robotic ants mimic the behavior of the colony.


Groups of interacting active particles, insects, or humans can form clusters that hinder the goals of the collective; therefore, development of robust strategies for control of such clogs is essential, particularly in confined environments. Our biological and robophysical excavation experiments, supported by computational and theoretical models, reveal that digging performance can be robustly optimized within the constraints of narrow tunnels by individual idleness and retreating. Tools from the study of dense particulate ensembles elucidate how idleness reduces the frequency of flow-stopping clogs and how selective retreating reduces cluster dissolution time for the rare clusters that still occur. Our results point to strategies by which dense active matter and swarms can become task capable without sophisticated sensing, planning, and global control of the collective.

For a clear and concise explanation of their work see the video at the New York Times site and enjoy.

Modeling can be great fun for you and your students, for it is filled with discovery and excitement.

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