Wise Ants Manage Traffic Better Than Humans, Never Cause Traffic Jams

Ants most are teeny creatures with brains smaller than pinheads; engineer traffic better than humans. Ants never run into stop-and-go-traffic or gridlock on the trail. In fact, the more ants of one species there are on the road, the faster they go, according to new research.

A study published recently shows that ants may just have the answer to the question, “how to avoid traffic jams?”. The worst part about travelling anywhere would have to be the traffic you encounter along the way. But as the study reveals, ants are immune to traffic jams.

Science says that they possess the ability to move in one single queue, without ganging up on each other, which also aids them in evading traffic even on congested roads.

The ants set it up as a three lane highway, a kind of  lane segregation. The ants were perfectly capable of modifying speed and controlling it even while on the trail. If the density of traffic on their trail increase, they could easily modify their speeds and adapt in order to avoid collision with each other or with objects around them.

When traffic was slow, the ants generally walked down the middle of the trail. When traffic picked up, the ants spread out from the center.

At medium density, inbound ants still concentrated on the central lanes, but outbound ants were recorded at all lanes and showed no lane preference,” the researchers wrote. Ants leaving the nest went to the right on the path; ants bringing back food and returning to the nest went to the left. The center was where the two streams met.

The heavier the traffic, the faster the ants marched. Unlike humans on, their velocity increased with the number of traveling ants and the trail widened as the ants spread out.

If an ant came across a blockage in the road, for instance a leaf or small stone, the ant would pick it up and move it off the road and then continue walking, making sure traffic was not interrupted. No matter how fast they went, there was never a traffic jam. The number of ants could reach hundreds of thousands but traffic on the trunk trail — unlike a car-clogged highway — kept moving.

Even collisions did not slow them down. There are accidents, mostly head-on collisions. While humans would stop and exchange insurance information or call an ambulance, blocking traffic and shutting down lanes, the ants use the occasion to exchange traffic information and news of the trail, and then quickly move on, with the incoming ants going to the left of the outgoing insects.

Incoming ants moved faster because they have two valuable resources: they are usually carrying food for the nest and have information about the foraging area so they move faster than those exiting the nest. Densities were distributed evenly in all lanes so the traffic was even in both directions.

The researchers tweaked the situation by providing additional food in the foraging areas to build traffic, and they still could not create traffic jams. The ants adjusted. Velocity and density were directly correlated even when both doubled. Other species of ants have different traffic engineering, and their traffic-coping mechanism might differ from the ants in the study.

The ants are both engineering their highways and adjusting their traffic on the road. They establish routes from their nest to their foraging area, then straighten out the road, cut shortcuts and maintain it, just as human engineers do. While on the road, they adjust where they go and how fast they go, just as human drivers do.

Human traffic engineers can manipulate lanes as the ants do to speed traffic. During rush hour, traffic officials open more lanes in one direction and fewer in the other.

Does that mean ants have a better traffic algorithm than human engineers or drivers?

It may not be that ants are smarter than we are, but they just may have a better sense of the traffic. Ant vision is not that great so I suspect that most of the information comes from tactile senses (antennas, legs). This means they are actually aware of not only the ant in front, but the ant behind as well, that reduces the instability found in automobile highways, where drivers only know about the car in front.

Human highways are not self-organized like the tiny-brained ants. Horn, who researches the vagaries of human traffic, agreed. He pointed out that when things got really rough, some of the ants would leave the trail and walk on the grass. In short, the strategy followed by ants is based on a principle of selflessness and consideration for their fellow beings – and we could probably learn a thing or two from them.

Ants have traffic cops too. If the traffic seems to be building up or if collisions begin taking place in the trail with more frequency, these “traffic cop” ants would block other ants leaving their nest to join the trail and compel them to take new routes. How cool is that?