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AISB event Bulletin Item

CALL FOR PARTICIPATION: WHITEHEAD LECTURE 'Distributed Decisions: New Insights from Radio-tagged Ants', Wed 30th Jan, Goldsmiths, London


The second Whitehead Lecture of spring term 2013 will be given by Elva Robinson. Elva is a Royal 
Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow with the York Centre For Complex Systems Analysis at the 
University of York.

An abstract for the lecture and short biography for the speaker are appended below.

The lecture will take place at 4pm on Wednesday 30th January in the Ben Pimlott Lecture Theatre, 
Goldsmiths, University of London . 


Distributed Decisions: New Insights from Radio-tagged Ants

ABSTRACT:  Ant colonies are model systems for the study of self-organisation and viewing ants as 
identical agents following simple rules has led to many insights into the emergence of complex 
behaviours. However, real biological ants are far from identical in behaviour. New advances in 
radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology now allow the exploration of ant behaviour at 
the individual level, providing unprecedented insights into distributed decision-making. I have 
addressed two areas of decision-making with this new technology: 1 Collective decision-making 
during colony emigration; 2 Task decisions in a changing environment. The first of these, 
collective decision-making during colony emigration, uses RFID microtransponder tags to identify 
the ants involved in collecting information about the environment, and to determine how their 
actions lead to the final colony-level decision. My results demonstrate that ants could use a 
very simple threshold rule to make their individual decisions, and still maintain a sophisticated 
choice mechanism at the colony level. The second area of distributed decision-making which has 
benefitted from the use of RFID is ant colony task-allocation, and in particular, how tasks are 
robustly distributed between members of a colony in the face of changing environmental conditions. 
The use of RFID tags on worker ants allows simultaneous monitoring of a range of factors which 
could affect decision-making, including age, experience, spatial location, social interactions 
and fat reserves. My results demonstrate that individual ants base some task decisions on their 
own physiological state, but also utilise social cues. For non-specialist tasks, self-organisation 
also contributes, as movement patterns can cause emergent task allocation. The combination of 
these simple mechanisms provides the colony as a whole with a responsive work-force, appropriately 
allocated across tasks, but flexible in response to changing environmental conditions.

BRIEF BIO: Elva Robinson studies the organisation of social insect societies, combining empirical 
and modelling work to identify the simple rules followed by individual members of a colony, and to 
determine how they interact to produce adaptive group-level behaviours. Key research areas include:
The organisation of a flexible foraging strategy; Division of labour and flexible task allocation; 
Collective decisions and pattern formation via self-organised processes. Elva began working in 
this area with a PhD at the University of Sheffield jointly between the Department Animal and Plant
Sciences and the Department of Computer Science. After post-doctoral work at the University of 
Bristol, she moved to the University of York on a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship. She 
is currently based between the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis and the Department of 
Biology, where she holds a proleptic lectureship appointment.