Some Social Networks Are More Equal Than Others.

Biology is full of networks and social species have social networks. Some are loose, small aggregates, while some are large complex networks. Some social networks are more equal than others in that large insect networks, ant colonies for example, are structured by job function that may change with age (also honey bees for example), but others may represent a power hierarchy (baboons for example).

Waters and Fewell from Arizona State U set up a couple of seed harvester ant colonies in their lab and decorated the individuals so that they could be recognized on tape. The aim of the game was to film the ants going about their everyday tasks and to record who ‘chatted’ to whom. (‘Chatting’ was taken as being indicated by the laying on of antennae by one to another.)

5 social networks were observed to develop in one colony, while 7 were seen in the other. The local substructures were compared to a random network generated by a computer and The structure which turned out to be the least random, that is it occurred frequently in 88% of the networks, was the feed forward loop.

The feed forward loop is a term used in control systems where two units feed information to a third without any feedback. So ant 1 tells ants 2 and 3 that she has the goodies and then ant 2 gees-up ant 3 thereby ensuring ant 3 is left in no doubt and is working harder. Information transfer efficiency is the aim of the game.

It seems that the ant communication is all about efficiency without much room for social chit-chat within their social networks.


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