Ants Avoid Traffic Jams by Giving Up

Both ants and traffic are well-connected to fluid dynamics, even if they are not, strictly speaking, fluids. As it happens, ant traffic has interesting implications not only for human transit but for avoiding clogs in crowds or when pouring granular materials

Ants tend to dig narrow tunnels. This helps individual ants recover from potential slips, but it also makes clogging more likely. Researchers studying the behavior of individual ants during tunnel digging found that ants entering the tunnel often turn around without collecting a grain and carrying it away. When they encounter heavy traffic, they simply reverse direction and give up. So 70% of the work of digging was done by only 30% of the ants. This seemingly unfair division of labor actually optimizes the overall traffic flow and work output for the ants as a whole. Without this instinct to turn around and ease the jam, incoming ants would cascade the traffic and worsen the jamming. (Image and research credit: J. Aguilar et al.; see also Physics Today)

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