Nigel Franks and Tom Richardson at the University of Bristol argue that for a behaviour to be classed as teaching in the strictest sense, it must be shown that, at some cost to itself, the ‘teacher’ changes its behaviour in the presence of a naïve ‘pupil’, together with evidence that the ‘pupil’ learns something from the interaction.
Franks and Richardson videoed what’s been dubbed ‘tandem running’, in which an ant (of the Temnothorax albipennis variety) that knows the route from the nest to food, leads the way, teaching the journey to a follower as it does so. During this behaviour, the teacher only continues its run to the food when it can feel the tapping on its legs and abdomen of the following ant’s antennae.
The cost for the teacher ant is that the journey from the nest to the food when it’s teaching is four times slower than when it completes the route on its own. The researchers showed the benefit to ants in the role of pupil was that they consistently found the food more quickly when tandem running behind a teacher, compared with when searching alone. Moreover, the ‘pupil’ ants later became teachers themselves when they subsequently passed knowledge of the route onto other naïve ants.
“Our demonstration of teaching behaviour in an ant shows that a big brain is not a prerequisite”, the researchers said.
Franks, N.R. & Richardson, T. (2006). Teaching in tandem-running ants. Nature, 439, 153.
Link to movie of the teaching ants in action