Ants in space grapple with zero-g

On board the ISS the ants were kept inside special plastic containers, with vents to allow them to breathe

Ants carried to the International Space Station were still able to use teamwork to search new areas, despite falling off the walls of their containers for up to eight seconds at a time.

Their “collective search” was hampered but still took place, biologists said.

The insects also showed an impressive knack for regaining their footing after taking a zero-g tumble.

Researchers want to learn from the ants’ cooperative methods and develop search algorithms for groups of robots

The ants were sent aloft in a supply rocket in January 2014, and results from the experiments are published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

The team is now beginning a citizen science project where schoolchildren can help collect data from other ant species – in their classrooms, rather than up in space.

Speaking to the BBC’s Science in Action, senior author Deborah Gordon said that ants have demonstrated their remarkable collective abilities in myriad environments on Earth, but the results from the microgravity conditions of the ISS were something new.

“We had no idea what the ants would do. We didn’t know if they would be able to search at all,” said Prof Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University.

As it turned out, although they had a little difficulty maintaining contact as they crawled, once adrift the ants showed a “remarkable ability” to get their six feet back on solid ground.

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