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Ant-stronauts face zero gravity

We're kind of disappointed that ant-stronauts don't get little helmets. Image Credit: NASA

We’re kind of disappointed that ant-stronauts don’t get little helmets. Image Credit: NASA

Researchers from Stanford University have offered eight ant colonies the holiday of a lifetime, by taking them into space. Of course, they had an ulterior motive: to find out how the six-legged insects cope in zero gravity conditions – lessons they hope to apply to search algorithms for robotics.

Each colony, consisting of 80 common pavement ants, was housed in a small transparent plastic box with a nest area where the insects would rest, read, catch up on Netflix, or whatever ants in nests do. Researchers removed barriers within the boxes, allowing the ants to explore small areas at a time, while a similar setup was present on Earth as a control.

So, what did they learn? Well, ants are surprisingly adaptive to new environments, even if the gravity isn’t quite as present as they’re used to.

They still used teamwork to explore, even though their exploration was hampered by frequently slipping off the walls of their containers for up to eight seconds at a time. Despite this, they were pretty good at regaining their footing, often using other ants to climb back down, and flattening their bodies against the plastic to regain composure.

“We had no idea what the ants would do. We didn’t know if they would be able to search at all,” senior author Deborah Gordon told the BBC.

“The ants didn’t do as well as they might have in microgravity,” Gordon continued, perhaps causing any ants in earshot to let their heads drop a little. “I think that’s partly because the effort to hold on led to them moving more slowly, and so they didn’t have a chance to cover the ground as thoroughly.”

A video from Stanford University explains the process in more depth, below.

Researchers are hoping to crowd-source further research, and have provided instructions to schools to conduct their own experiments on local ants. “We hope that kids around the world will try this same experiment with all of the many thousands of species of ants that have never been studied,” Professor Gordon explained.

From there, they hope to build a database of how different ants tackle the same problem, albeit in kinder gravitational conditions.

So, useful lessons learned and nothing went wrong. What could go wrong, you ask? We can think of at least one thing:

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