Deciphering Ant Communication

Nov. 16, 2010, 1:00 a.m.

Deciphering Ant Communication
Deborah Gordon works on her research studying ant colony interactions. She likens ant communication to "Twitter messages that have no content." (Courtesy of Deborah M. Gordon)

Stanford professor Deborah Gordon digs into the complex behaviors that govern ant colonies

Deborah M. Gordon, a professor and research scientist working in Stanford’s Department of Biology, is one of those unique professionals whose work seems to reflect her own life.

In this case, the efficient bustle of an ant colony, her specific field of interest, mirrors her work, something that includes writing two books, conducting five research projects, raising two children and fulfilling obligations as a university professor. Gordon’s range of activity is leagues beyond scoping out the freshest cake crumbs at a neighborhood picnic, like a busy ant might.

Indeed, no sign of hectic disorganization marks her appearance or mannerisms during our interview. Sitting comfortably in her desk chair with her arms crossed, Gordon is the epitome of professionalism. However, based upon the vast amalgam of entomology books and papers strewn across her desk, it is evident she is hard at work. Although her collection of ant-specific literature indicates an entrenched passion for the insect, her personal story provides a different view.

Gordon said that as a child, she had no particular interest in ants, or even insects for that matter. In fact, she was afraid of cockroaches. Yet she enjoyed the outdoors and reveled in any chance she got to visit the wilderness, a rarity since she grew up in Miami Beach, Fla., and was raised in a very urban environment by parents who had a limited appreciation for the natural world.

“My parents thought of nature as decoration,” she said. “But when I was a child I would go to a wilderness camp in North Carolina. I thought it was wonderful to be out in the forest. But I didn’t think of it as something to be studied. I thought of it as a very benign, safe place.”

Today, a love of nature may explain her interest in biology, but why ants?

“My family likes to tell a story that when I was a baby, my older brother set me down on a fire-ant mound. They like to joke that was the beginning of my interest in ants,” she said, smiling.

Although she received a bachelor’s degree in French at Oberlin College, where she was also a student of music theory, Gorden hat yet to find her true passion until her senior year of college, when she took a course in comparative anatomy.

The course “was a revelation to me because it allowed me to understand that there was order and pattern in nature in the same way there are in things that people create,” she said.

Following this epiphany, Gordon pursued her master’s in developmental biology at Stanford.

“The interesting thing to me was how we can understand a complex biological system without any central control,” she explained. “An embryo, like an ant colony, has nothing in charge. No central authority says to one cell, ‘You go be brain,’ and to another, ‘You go be bone,’ and yet somehow, it develops.”

“I was looking for a system where I could think about how the interactions among the parts make the whole thing work, but I wanted to be able to see everything,” she continued. “I actually chose ants [because their] colonies are complex systems like an embryo’s. So I chose to work on ants for a very abstract reason.”

Gordon came to Stanford in 1991 after doing post-doctoral work at Harvard, Oxford and The University of London and earning her doctorate in zoology at Duke.

The most interesting part of her research, she said, is learning about how an ant colony works.

“No one tells anybody what to do, there’s nobody in charge,” Gordon said. “Ants can only perceive what’s right around them. Most species of ants can’t see, and they all operate mostly by smell. Each ant uses only very local information about what to do. So when you put it all together, you get the complex behavior of an ant colony.”

Although she loves her research, as evident in the myriad ant artwork that lines her walls and covers her desk, her greatest pride and joy are her children Sam, 15, and Eleanor, 12.

In fact, Eleanor produced most of the drawings on her walls. Gordon pointed to a red stick-figure sketch her daughter made as a little girl, in which Gordon is juggling a number of purple balls. The picture rings true; with all of her ongoing projects and commitments, it’s a wonder she has any time at all.

Her students and fellows have nothing but compliments for Gordon’s guidance and work ethic.

“[Gordon’s] clear thinking and accuracy in her work are very important qualities,” said Noa Pinter-Wollman, one of Gordon’s post-doctoral fellows. “She’s an amazing writer…she has a very good way of coming up with experiments, as well as possesses an ability to hone in on what’s important.”

A fifth-year graduate student working under Gordon studying social insects, Shelby Sturgis said that the most valuable thing he’s learned from her was how to go about being a scientist.

“I’m a Ph.D. student, and the first thing we had to do was come up with our own experiments,” he said. “There is a lot of trial and error in research, and Professor Gordon really helps streamline that process.”

Currently, Gordon is working on three projects, including one she’s been doing since she was in graduate school. She is tracking the populations of about 300 ant colonies over a 25-year lifespan; studying how native ant species are resisting the invasive Argentina ant (“the ant in your bathroom,” she said) at Jasper Ridge; and observing ant-plant mutualism in the Mexican tropical dry forest. She also conducts behavior experiments and does genetic work in the lab and has written two books, including the widely reviewed “Ants at Work.”

Despite her numerous accolades, Gordon said that the most gratifying part of her research is when the ants surprise her. An instance of this is when she learned that ants use the rate of interaction to determine their next actions, since there is no central control system in their colonies.

“It’s like they are sending each other little Twitter messages that have no content; they just use the rate at which they receive them to decide what to do next,” she said. “It’s a system of communication where the interaction itself is the whole message. It’s not like ‘Antz’ or ‘A Bug’s Life’ where a foreman simply blows a whistle and tells the ants to all go do something. That never happens.”

And her advice to aspiring ant biologists?

“Go out and look,” she said. “Before you read about ants, go out and watch some!”

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