The ecology of collective behavior, by Deborah Gordon
Like many biological systems, an ant colony operates without central control. Each ant responds to its interactions with other ants nearby. In the aggregate, these stochastic, dynamical networks of interaction regulate colony behavior
Ants are extremely diverse, and species differences in collective behavior reflect relations with diverse environments. A long-term study of desert seed-eating ants shows how colonies regulate foraging activity according to food availability and humidity, and how natural selection is shaping collective behavior in current drought conditions. In the tropical arboreal turtle ant, trail networks respond to the distribution and stability of resources.
The algorithms that generate collective behavior have evolved feedback regimes that fit the dynamics of particular environments. Examples from ants provide a starting point for examining more generally the fit between the particular pattern of interaction that regulates collective behavior, and the environment in which it functions. There are interesting analogies with the diverse functions of neural systems.
Deborah M. Gordon is a Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford University.
She received her PhD from Duke University, then did postdoctoral research in the Harvard Society of Fellows, at Oxford University, and the Centre for Population Biology at Silwood Park, University of London, and joined the faculty at Stanford in 1991.
Prof. Gordon’s lab group studies the collective regulation of behavior and collective identity, and how collective behavior functions ecologically. She discovered that ants use the rate of simple olfactory contacts to decide what task to perform, and that feedback based on such contacts regulates colony activity such as foraging. A unique long-term study tracking a population of harvester ant colonies in the desert of the southwestern US shows how evolution is currently shaping collective behavior in a natural population.
She is the author of two books, Ants at Work (Norton 2000) and Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior (Primers in Complex Systems, Princeton University Press, 2010), and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences. Links to articles and talks for the general public are on the home page, and links to scholarly articles are on the publications page of http://www.stanford.edu/~dmgordon/.