Ant Colonies Retain Memories That Outlast the Lifespans of Individuals | Science | Smithsonian
Colonies live for 20-30 years, the lifetime of the single queen who produces all the ants, but individual ants live at most a year. In response to perturbations, the behavior of older, larger colonies is more stable than that of younger ones. It is also more homeostatic: the larger the magnitude of the disturbance, the more likely older colonies were to focus on foraging than on responding to the hassles I had created; while, the worse it got, the more the younger colonies reacted. In short, older, larger colonies grow up to act more wisely than younger smaller ones, even though the older colony does not have older, wiser ants.
Ants use the rate at which they meet and smell other ants, or the chemicals deposited by other ants, to decide what to do next. A neuron uses the rate at which it is stimulated by other neurons to decide whether to fire. In both cases, memory arises from changes in how ants or neurons connect and stimulate each other. It is likely that colony behavior matures because colony size changes the rates of interaction among ants. In an older, larger colony, each ant has more ants to meet than in a younger, smaller one, and the outcome is a more stable dynamic. Perhaps colonies remember a past disturbance because it shifted the location of ants, leading to new patterns of interaction, which might even reinforce the new behavior overnight while the colony is inactive, just as our own memories are consolidated during sleep. Changes in colony behavior due to past events are not the simple sum of ant memories, just as changes in what we remember, and what we say or do, are not a simple set of transformations, neuron by neuron. Instead, your memories are like an ant colony’s: no particular neuron remembers anything although your brain does.