Micro RFID Helping Scientists Understand Ant Decision-Making

Just as enterprises are leveraging RFID and asset intelligence technology to harness the power of data to drive better decisions about physical assets, inventory and processes, scientists are also utilising micro RFID systems to study the decision-making behaviour of insects.

We’ve written previously about studies involving micro RFID systems designed to monitor bee behaviour at Kew Gardens in London and here in Australia at the CSIRO. But these are not the only application of their kind. A group of researchers at the University of Bristol employed RFID to study a species of common ant, to understand how they – as an example of animals with simple brains and limited information to make complex decisions – decide as a colony where to nest.

One of the key challenges with the study of insect behaviour is the collection of high-quality datasets as these tiny creatures move through space and time. Many studies require long term, detailed observations, and having people monitor them visually can be inefficient and impractical. This issue is further complicated because they are dealing with large colonies of tiny insects at a time, making it difficult to track and distinguish between individuals.

However, innovation in the miniaturisation of tracking devices combined with data management software that manages item unique identification (Relegen’s assetDNA platform has this capability also), can help scientists to collect accurate and complete datasets on a much wider and more granular level than ever before – while also reducing the time, effort and cost associated with manual data collection.

Tagging And Tracking The Ants

In the University of Bristol’s experiment, 9 colonies of a particular ant type were collected from the Dorset coast, in the south of England, and housed in artificial nests. Ants were first anesthetised, then tagged with a tiny RFID (called the p-Chip developed by PharmaSeq) measuring only 500 x 500 x 100 μm and 82 μg. This allowed an ant, even one as small as 2mm in length, to be tagged without interference of its function or inflicting physical harm. Then, when an ant passed by a reader, the tag was activated and its ID read. The RFID readers stationed at the artificial nests detected ants entering and leaving the nests (86% tag read rate) and handheld RFID readers were used to read the tags on tandem-running ants (100% tag read rate) as they crossed various points.

Taking The Hassle Out Of Moving

One of the key findings from the experiment was that ant colonies showed sophisticated nest-site decision-making abilities in that they were able to select a superior site – even when it was further away than the alternative. Furthermore, the best nest was chosen with only a few individual ants making direct comparisons between the nest-sites. This is quite distinct from us humans who typically need to compare all available real-estate options before making a decision about a new home.

Dr Elva Robinson, who headed up the study said: “Each ant appeared to have its own ‘threshold of acceptability’ against which to judge a nest individually. Ants finding the poor nest were likely to switch and find the good nest, whereas ants finding the good nest were more likely to stay committed to that nest. When ants switched quickly between the two nests, the colonies ended up in the good nest. Individual ants did not need to comparatively evaluate both nests in order for the entire colony to make the correct decision.”

RFID Benefits For Scientific Research

The primary benefit of miniaturised RFID systems for scientists is the exceptionally small size and weight of the RFID tag. Each tag must also carry a unique ID that cannot be duplicated or replicated. These systems can eliminate the need to visually monitor ant behaviour and remain operational 24/7. The systems also improve data quality by reducing the potential for data entry errors and enable both individual and group activity within a colony to be studied. This set-up can also be deployed to study other insects, including bees, fleas, spiders, and fruit flies, as well as in small animals, such as mice and even fish.

If this story has piqued your interest, there’s a video about a similar study involving ants and RFID that you can watch on the Nat Geo WILD YouTube channel. In the meantime, if your organisation or research project has a requirement for miniaturised RFID tracking technology, feel free to reach out to Relegen via sales@relegen.com or +61(0)2 9998 9000.