A Model for Ant Trail Formation and its Convergence Properties

Moses Charikar, Shivam Garg, Deborah M. Gordon, Kirankumar Shiragur

We introduce a model for ant trail formation, building upon previous work on biologically feasible local algorithms that plausibly describe how ants maintain trail networks. The model is a variant of a reinforced random walk on a directed graph, where ants lay pheromone on edges as they traverse them and the next edge to traverse is chosen based on the pheromone level; this pheromone decays with time. There is a bidirectional flow of ants: the forward flow proceeds along forward edges from source (e.g. the nest) to sink (e.g. a food source), and the backward flow in the opposite direction. Some fraction of ants are lost as they pass through each node (modeling the loss of ants due to exploration). We initiate a theoretical study of this model. We first consider the linear decision rule, where the flow divides itself among the next set of edges in proportion to their pheromone level. Here, we show that the process converges to the path with minimum leakage when the forward and backward flows do not change over time. When the forward and backward flows increase over time (caused by positive reinforcement from the discovery of a food source, for example), we show that the process converges to the shortest path. These results are for graphs consisting of two parallel paths (a case that has been investigated before in experiments). Through simulations, we show that these results hold for more general graphs drawn from various random graph models. Further, we consider a general family of decision rules, and show that there is no advantage of using a non-linear rule from this family, if the goal is to find the shortest or the minimum leakage path. We also show that bidirectional flow is necessary for convergence to such paths. Our results provide a plausible explanation for field observations, and open up new avenues for further theoretical and experimental investigation.

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