Optimal foraging and the information theory of gambling

Roland J. Baddeley*, Nigel R. Franks, Edmund R. Hunt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
219 Downloads (Pure)


At a macroscopic level, part of the ant colony life-cycle is simple: a colony collects resources; these resources are converted into more ants, and these ants in turn collect more resources. Because more ants collect more resources, this is a multiplicative process, and the expected logarithm of the amount of resources determines how successful the colony will be in the long run. Over 60 years ago, Kelly showed, using information theoretic techniques, that the rate of growth of resources for such a situation is optimised by probability matching. Thus, in the case of ants the fraction of the colony foraging at a given location should be proportional to the probability that resources will be found there, a result widely applied in the mathematics of gambling. This theoretical optimum generates predictions for which collective ant movement strategies might have evolved. Here, we show how colony level optimal foraging behaviour can be achieved by mapping movement to Markov chain Monte Carlo methods, specifically Hamiltonian Markov chain Monte Carlo (HMC). This can be done by the ants following a (noisy) local measurement of the (logarithm of) the resource probability gradient (possibly supplemented with momentum, i.e. a propensity to move in the same direction). This maps the problem of foraging (via the information theory of gambling, stochastic dynamics and techniques employed within Bayesian statistics to efficiently sample from probability distributions) to simple models of ant foraging behaviour. This identification has broad applicability, facilitates the application of information theory approaches to understanding movement ecology, and unifies insights from existing biomechanical, cognitive, random and optimality movement paradigms. At the cost of requiring ants to obtain (noisy) resource gradient information, we show that this model is both efficient, and matches a number of characteristics of real ant exploration.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20190162
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number157
Publication statusPublished - 7 Aug 2019

Structured keywords

  • Cognitive Science
  • Visual Perception


  • Bayesian methods
  • Collective behaviour
  • Lévy foraging
  • Markov chain Monte Carlo
  • Movement ecology

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