RSB Directors Seminar: Beyond the brain: decision making and information processing in ant colonies and slime mould amoebas

Presented by ANU College of Science

All living organisms need to process information; this basic ability allows them to find and exploit the resources necessary for life. But what happens when information processing  needs to be coordinated between many thousands - or even millions- of individuals?  Or when organisms lack brains entirely? In this talk, I will discuss decision-making and information processing in ant colonies and slime mould amoebas. 

Despite being unicellular (and therefore brainless), the slime mould Physarum polycephalum can make trade-offs between risk and food quality, adjust its search strategy depending on environmental quality, balance its macronutrient intake, solve mazes, and even displays forms of memory. At the other end of the spectrum, ant colonies containing millions of ants can collectively solve shortest path problems, build efficient trail networks and reorganise their trail systems to minimise traffic delays.  The remarkable behaviours of ant colonies and slime mould amoebas raises questions about the nature and origin of cognition and about the mechanisms underlying information processing in radically different organisms.

Dr Tanya Latty 's research focuses broadly on invertebrate behaviour and ecology with a particularly interest in the intersections between behaviour and technology.  Her recent research directions  include studying swarm intelligence in bees, ants and slime moulds,  social foraging decisions in a range of organisms, and using eusocial insects as models for bio inspired technologies. She did her PhD at the University of Calgary in Canada, where she studied how tiny bark beetles were able to kill large pine trees by working as a group.

She joined the University of Sydney in 2008 as a postdoc studying collective optimisation in bees, ants and slime moulds.  In 2014 she took up a lectureship at the University of Sydney where she is responsible for coordinating the entomology program.  Tanya has received several awards for her research and science communication including a NSW Tall Poppy award and a prestigious Branco Weiss Society in Science Fellowship.