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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Behind the Scenes at The Truman Show for Ants

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 18, 2013


My new post for TakePart:


Even in the arcane world of ant behavior, the right headline can make all the difference. Back in May, Danielle Mersch and her colleagues at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland published an article in Science.They got very little attention for it, perhaps because the headline wasn’t exactly an attention-grabber: “Tracking Individuals Shows Spatial Fidelity Is a Key Regulator of Ant Social Organization.”

But a new article, just published in Current Biology, gives Mersch’s work the spin it clearly deserves. Under the headline “Animal Behavior: The Truman Show for Ants,” the authors describe how the system Mersch’s team devised to track the second-by-second movements of every individual in an ant colony resembles the popular 1998 film starring Jim Carrey. In that film, Truman Burbank, played by Carrey, belatedly discovers that his entire life has been a reality show produced and managed for broadcast.

At Mersch’s laboratory in Lausanne, the lives being recorded take place in a row of Styrofoam boxes, each about the size of a bar refrigerator, lined up on a counter. A computer precisely controls temperature and humidity inside each box, where a colony of about 150 carpenter ants (Camponotus fellah) goes back and forth between daytime and nighttime compartments. Mersch has 11 separate colonies under watch at the moment. Like Truman before he wakes up, the ants are apparently oblivious that the outside world is looking in, though every ant carries a barcode-like placard on its back, for automated identification, and an overhead camera … to read the rest of this post click here.



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