The key to solving our traffic problems may lie with ants

As you crawl through your commute, it can seem as if our roads and transport systems are already at capacity.

But with Australia's population on track to reach 40 million in the next 40 years, and most of us expected to live in cities, we'll need new systems to cope with the influx.

To solve our impending transport dilemmas and make these cities better (as well as bigger), researchers are looking to an animal with a brain smaller than a grain of sand: the ant.

Ants have long been known for their ability to work together, operating complex supply chains and vast communication networks. One colony is thought to span thousands of kilometres.

Photo Entomologist Dr Tanya Latty working with bees in the field.

A woman in a bee suit in a field Supplied: Tanya Latty

"The main thing we can learn from insects, particularly social insects, is how you can build really complex systems by following relatively simple rules," says Research and Teaching Fellow in Entomology at the University of Sydney, Dr Tanya Latty.

Just as humans do, Dr Latty says ants have infrastructure problems that need solving.

"They need waste disposal systems, they need transportation networks to move food and themselves from place to place, so they've had to evolve ways of doing that," she said.

The entomologist is studying ant colonies for clues on building better-connected cities, as our own transport networks grow in complexity and size.

She said the aim is not to copy the ants' systems exactly, as the insects have their own constraints and goals, but rather be inspired by them.

"[Ants] have had millions of years to evolve interesting new ways of doing things that we may not have thought of," said Dr Latty.

"Trying to really get in there and figure out how it is they're able to build these resilient systems, hopefully we can take those ideas and transfer them, for example to build better computer algorithms, and to figure out where to put roads."

From little things, big things grow

In today's rapidly urbanizing cities, engineers and urban planners face the challenge of designing efficient transport with minimal resources, according to Dr Latty.

Ants face similar obstacles as they build trails to connect multiple nests to many food sources.

"There is a cost to not doing things efficiently," said Dr Latty.

"For example, if [ants] are using a circuitous route to get to their food sources, they are burning energy and are more exposed to predators while above ground."

Photo Ants can face similar obstacles to humans as they build trails to connect nests to food sources.

Close-Up Of Ants Hunting Grasshopper On Plant Getty: Ais Setiawan / EyeEm

Dr Latty said one of the species they are working with, the meat ant, builds networks very efficiently.

The meat ant connects points in a way that is resilient — if the network is damaged it will continue to work — while being efficient with energy and resources.

"Once we figured out the behavioural rules for that, we took it and applied it to simulations of human systems to see if we could get that same connectivity," Dr Latty said.

"For example, if you're planning a new subdivision that algorithm might be able to tell you whether you're better to connect to existing infrastructure, or whether it's better to build new infrastructure."

Slime mould a no brainer

The entomologist is also studying the behavioural patterns of slime moulds, which, unlike ants, have no brain at all. Slime moulds can be metres long, while remaining a single cell.

"They are just an oozy substance, really. They're like moving snot," said Dr Latty.

Despite this, Dr Latty has found slime moulds are able to evaluate the risk and gain of food sources, and balance their nutritional uptake. But she's still discovering how this happens.

External Link Timelapse of a slime mould growing

"In the philosophical sense, it poses all these questions about what is cognition," said Latty.

"Why do we even need brains? And how much of this brainless thinking is going on?"

Dr Latty works with computer scientists, mathematicians and other experts to understand and apply what she learns through nature.

"Most of the problems that we face as a planet have gone beyond the ability of one discipline to solve. We need to get together and start sharing knowledge."

She also believes there is a lot more to learn from the insect world, with only 20 percent of species identified, at best.

"This really is an insect world," she said.

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