Oh So Clever

When I think of the word “clever” I think of a particular kind of intelligence, one that implies a problem solver, i.e. the ability to find an efficient work-around for an obstacle.  Additionally, the work-around typically involves a fresh approach, something surprising or unusual in its simplicity.  Cleverness is more ingenuity than genius.  Engineering is a clever profession, and nature is the most clever of all.  Through the relentless force of evolution, nature has devised the most elegant lures, traps and elaborate mating rituals, solutions to the most harsh or competitive environments, and in the process has woven a virtuoso web equipped with checks and balances that we can only begin to understand.

When I read a story about desert ants in the National Geographic, I only thought about cleverness.   Desert ants can wander around the featureless desert for hours, but somehow manage to find their way home.  Researchers proposed that the ant brain is equipped with some sort of mechanism that “counts” the number of steps on the way from the nest and then the ant takes the same number of steps returning.  Animal navigation routinely surpasses human navigation, but you can’t help but be impressed by a clever ant that can accomplish this on a speck-sized brain that can be scrambled with a casual finger flick.

And you also have to admire the ingenuity of the researchers that figured this out.  The first hypothesis was that the ants used visual cues, so the researchers set up a tiny treadmill in their lab accompanied by moving images of desert scenery.  The ants were not fooled by this and still found their way home in the simulated desert.  The next salvo was to alter the stride length of the ants by trimming down their legs, although the researchers were quick to point out that that was not animal cruelty since ants often lose their legs and feel no pain.  The ants did in fact come up short on their way home, but the German researchers realized that the ant navigation system might not be on the fritz, the ants could have merely gotten tired, or were handicapped by walking on stumps.  So they tried a third strategy, this time making the ants’ legs longer by gluing a pig bristle to each of their legs – bingo, hypothesis confirmed, the ants routinely overshot their mark.

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