Collective behavior is produced by interactions among individuals. Differences among groups in individual response to interactions can lead to ecologically important variation among groups in collective behavior. Here we examine variation among colonies in the foraging behavior of the harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus. Previous work shows how colonies regulate foraging in response to food availability and desiccation costs: the rate at which outgoing foragers leave the nest depends on the rate at which foragers return with food. To examine how colonies vary in response to humidity and in foraging rate, we performed field experiments that manipulated forager return rate in 94 trials with 17 colonies over 3 years. We found that the effect of returning foragers on the rate of outgoing foragers increases with humidity. There are consistent differences among colonies in foraging activity that persist from year to year.
Social insect colonies operate without central control or any global assessment of what needs to be done by workers. Colony organization arises from the responses of individuals to local cues. Red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) regulate foraging using interactions between returning and outgoing foragers. The rate at which foragers return with seeds, a measure of food availability, sets the rate at which outgoing foragers leave the nest on foraging trips. We used mimics to test whether outgoing foragers inside the nest respond to the odor of food, oleic acid, the odor of the forager itself, cuticular hydrocarbons, or a combination of both with increased foraging activity. We compared foraging activity, the rate at which foragers passed a line on a trail, before and after the addition of mimics. The combination of both odors, those of food and of foragers, is required to stimulate foraging. The addition of blank mimics, mimics coated with food odor alone, or mimics coated with forager odor alone did not increase foraging activity. We compared the rates at which foragers inside the nest interacted with other ants, blank mimics, and mimics coated with a combination of food and forager odor. Foragers inside the nest interacted more with mimics coated with combined forager/seed odors than with blank mimics, and these interactions had the same effect as those with other foragers. Outgoing foragers inside the nest entrance are stimulated to leave the nest in search of food by interacting with foragers returning with seeds. By using the combined odors of forager cuticular hydrocarbons and of seeds, the colony captures precise information, on the timescale of seconds, about the current availability of food.
Many dynamical networks, such as the ones that produce the collective behavior of social insects, operate without any central control, instead arising from local interactions among individuals. A well-studied example is the formation of recruitment trails in ant colonies, but many ant species do not use pheromone trails. We present a model of the regulation of foraging by harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) colonies. This species forages for scattered seeds that one ant can retrieve on its own, so there is no need for spatial information such as pheromone trails that lead ants to specific locations. Previous work shows that colony foraging activity, the rate at which ants go out to search individually for seeds, is regulated in response to current food availability throughout the colony's foraging area. Ants use the rate of brief antennal contacts inside the nest between foragers returning with food and outgoing foragers available to leave the nest on the next foraging trip. Here we present a feedback-based algorithm that captures the main features of data from field experiments in which the rate of returning foragers was manipulated. The algorithm draws on our finding that the distribution of intervals between successive ants returning to the nest is a Poisson process. We fitted the parameter that estimates the effect of each returning forager on the rate at which outgoing foragers leave the nest. We found that correlations between observed rates of returning foragers and simulated rates of outgoing foragers, using our model, were similar to those in the data. Our simple stochastic model shows how the regulation of ant colony foraging can operate without spatial information, describing a process at the level of individual ants that predicts the overall foraging activity of the colony.
Social insect colonies operate without any central control. Their collective behavior arises from local interactions among individuals. Here we present a simple stochastic model of the regulation of foraging by harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) colonies, which forage for scattered seeds that one ant can retrieve on its own, so there is no need for pheromone trails to specific locations. Previous work shows that colony foraging activity is regulated in response to current food availability, using the rate of brief antennal contacts inside the nest between foragers returning with food and outgoing foragers. Our feedback-based algorithm estimates the effect of each returning forager on the rate at which foragers leave the nest. The model shows how the regulation of ant colony foraging can operate without spatial information, describing a process at the level of individual ants that predicts the overall foraging activity of the colony.
Environmental conditions and physical constraints both influence an animal's behavior. We investigate whether behavioral variation among colonies of the black harvester ant, Messor andrei, remains consistent across foraging and disturbance situations and ask whether consistent colony behavior is affected by nest site and weather. We examined variation among colonies in responsiveness to food baits and to disturbance, measured as a change in numbers of active ants, and in the speed with which colonies retrieved food and removed debris. Colonies differed consistently, across foraging and disturbance situations, in both responsiveness and speed. Increased activity in response to food was associated with a smaller decrease in response to alarm. Speed of retrieving food was correlated with speed of removing debris. In all colonies, speed was greater in dry conditions, reducing the amount of time ants spent outside the nest. While a colony occupied a certain nest site, its responsiveness was consistent in both foraging and disturbance situations, suggesting that nest structure influences colony personality.
behavioral syndromes; collective behavior; harvester ant; Messor andrei; nest structure; personality; plasticity; social insects; temperament
Desert seed-harvester ants, genus Pogonomyrmex, are central place foragers that search for resources collectively. We quantify how seed harvesters exploit the spatial distribution of seeds to improve their rate of seed collection. We find that foraging rates are significantly influenced by the clumpiness of experimental seed baits. Colonies collected seeds from larger piles faster than randomly distributed seeds. We developed a method to compare foraging rates on clumped versus random seeds across three Pogonomyrmex species that differ substantially in forager population size. The increase in foraging rate when food was clumped in larger piles was indistinguishable across the three species, suggesting that species with larger colonies are no better than species with smaller colonies at collecting clumped seeds. These findings contradict the theoretical expectation that larger groups are more efficient at exploiting clumped resources, thus contributing to our understanding of the importance of the spatial distribution of food sources and colony size for communication and organization in social insects.
Acquisition of information about food sources is essential for animals that forage collectively like social insects. Foragers deliver two commodities to the nest, food and information, and they may favor the delivery of one at the expenses of the other. We predict that information needs should be particularly high at the beginning of foraging: the decision to return faster to the nest will motivate a grass-cutting ant worker to reduce its loading time, and so to leave the source with a partial load.
Field results showed that at the initial foraging phase, most grass-cutting ant foragers (Acromyrmex heyeri) returned unladen to the nest, and experienced head-on encounters with outgoing workers. Ant encounters were not simply collisions in a probabilistic sense: outgoing workers contacted in average 70% of the returning foragers at the initial foraging phase, and only 20% at the established phase. At the initial foraging phase, workers cut fragments that were shorter, narrower, lighter and tenderer than those harvested at the established one. Foragers walked at the initial phase significantly faster than expected for the observed temperatures, yet not at the established phase. Moreover, when controlling for differences in the fragment-size carried, workers still walked faster at the initial phase. Despite the higher speed, their individual transport rate of vegetable tissue was lower than that of similarly-sized workers foraging later at the same patch.
At the initial foraging phase, workers compromised their individual transport rates of material in order to return faster to the colony. We suggest that the observed flexible cutting rules and the selection of partial loads at the beginning of foraging are driven by the need of information transfer, crucial for the establishment and maintenance of a foraging process to monopolize a discovered resource.
We investigated the phenomenon of activity cycles in ants, taking into account the spatial structure of colonies. In our study species, Leptothorax acervorum, there are two spatially segregated groups in the nest. We developed a model that considers the two groups as coupled oscillators which can produce synchronized activity. By investigating the effects of noise on the model system we predicted how the return of foragers affects activity cycles in ant colonies. We tested these predictions empirically by comparing the activity of colonies under two conditions: when foragers are and are not allowed to return to the nest. The activity of the whole colony and of each group within the colony was studied using image analysis. This allowed us to reveal the spatial pattern of activity wave propagation in ant colonies for the first time.
The foraging behavior of the arboreal turtle ant, Cephalotes goniodontus, was studied in the tropical dry forest of western Mexico. The ants collected mostly plant-derived food, including nectar and fluids collected from the edges of wounds on leaves, as well as caterpillar frass and lichen. Foraging trails are on small pieces of ephemeral vegetation, and persist in exactly the same place for 4–8 days, indicating that food sources may be used until they are depleted. The species is polydomous, occupying many nests which are abandoned cavities or ends of broken branches in dead wood. Foraging trails extend from trees with nests to trees with food sources. Observations of marked individuals show that each trail is travelled by a distinct group of foragers. This makes the entire foraging circuit more resilient if a path becomes impassable, since foraging in one trail can continue while a different group of ants forms a new trail. The colony’s trails move around the forest from month to month; from one year to the next, only one colony out of five was found in the same location. There is continual searching in the vicinity of trails: ants recruited to bait within 3 bifurcations of a main foraging trail within 4 hours. When bait was offered on one trail, to which ants recruited, foraging activity increased on a different trail, with no bait, connected to the same nest. This suggests that the allocation of foragers to different trails is regulated by interactions at the nest.
Long-lived animals, including social insects, often display seasonal shifts in foraging behavior. Foraging is ultimately a nutrient consumption exercise, but the effect of seasonality per se on changes in foraging behavior, particularly as it relates to nutrient regulation, is poorly understood. Here, we show that field-collected fire ant colonies, returned to the laboratory and maintained under identical photoperiod, temperature, and humidity regimes, and presented with experimental foods that had different protein (p) to carbohydrate (c) ratios, practice summer- and fall-specific foraging behaviors with respect to protein-carbohydrate regulation. Summer colonies increased the amount of food collected as the p:c ratio of their food became increasingly imbalanced, but fall colonies collected similar amounts of food regardless of the p:c ratio of their food. Choice experiments revealed that feeding was non-random, and that both fall and summer ants preferred carbohydrate-biased food. However, ants rarely ate all the food they collected, and their cached or discarded food always contained little carbohydrate relative to protein. From a nutrient regulation strategy, ants consumed most of the carbohydrate they collected, but regulated protein consumption to a similar level, regardless of season. We suggest that varied seasonal food collection behaviors and nutrient regulation strategies may be an adaptation that allows long-lived animals to meet current and future nutrient demands when nutrient-rich foods are abundant (e.g. spring and summer), and to conserve energy and be metabolically more efficient when nutritionally balanced foods are less abundant.
Many animals nest or roost colonially. At the start of a potential foraging period, they may set out independently or await information from returning foragers. When should such individuals act independently and when should they wait for information? In a social insect colony, for example, information transfer may greatly increase a recruit's probability of finding food, and it is commonly assumed that this will always increase the colony's net energy gain. We test this assumption with a mathematical model. Energy gain by a colony is a function both of the probability of finding food sources and of the duration of their availability. A key factor is the ratio of pro-active foragers to re-active foragers. When leaving the nest, pro-active foragers search for food independently, whereas re-active foragers rely on information from successful foragers to find food. Under certain conditions, the optimum strategy is totally independent (pro-active) foraging because potentially valuable information that re-active foragers may gain from successful foragers is not worth waiting for. This counter-intuitive outcome is remarkably robust over a wide range of parameters. It occurs because food sources are only available for a limited period. Our study emphasizes the importance of time constraints and the analysis of dynamics, not just steady states, to understand social insect foraging.
collective foraging; optimal foraging; information transfer; recruitment; division of labour; social insect
The success of social animals (including ourselves) can be attributed to efficiencies that arise from a division of labour. Many animal societies have a communal nest which certain individuals must leave to perform external tasks, for example foraging or patrolling. Staying at home to care for young or leaving to find food is one of the most fundamental divisions of labour. It is also often a choice between safety and danger. Here we explore the regulation of departures from ant nests. We consider the extreme situation in which no one returns and show experimentally that exiting decisions seem to be governed by fluctuating record signals and ant-ant interactions. A record signal is a new ‘high water mark’ in the history of a system. An ant exiting the nest only when the record signal reaches a level it has never perceived before could be a very effective mechanism to postpone, until the last possible moment, a potentially fatal decision. We also show that record dynamics may be involved in first exits by individually tagged ants even when their nest mates are allowed to re-enter the nest. So record dynamics may play a role in allocating individuals to tasks, both in emergencies and in everyday life. The dynamics of several complex but purely physical systems are also based on record signals but this is the first time they have been experimentally shown in a biological system.
The division of labor in social insect colonies involves transitions by workers from one task to another and is critical to the organization and ecological success of colonies. The differential regulation of genetic pathways is likely to be a key mechanism involved in plasticity of social insect task behavior. One of the few pathways implicated in social organization involves the cGMP-activated protein kinase gene, foraging, a gene associated with foraging behavior in social insect species. The association of the foraging gene with behavior is conserved across diverse species, but the observed expression patterns and proposed functions of this gene vary across taxa. We compared the protein sequence of foraging across social insects and explored whether the differential regulation of this gene is associated with task behaviors in the harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis.
Phylogenetic analysis of the coding region of the foraging gene reveals considerable conservation in protein sequence across insects, particularly among hymenopteran species. The absence of amino acid variation in key active and binding sites suggests that differences in behaviors associated with this gene among species may be the result of changes in gene expression rather than gene divergence. Using real time qPCR analyses with a harvester ant ortholog to foraging (Pofor), we found that the brains of harvester ant foragers have a daily fluctuation in expression of foraging with mRNA levels peaking at midday. In contrast, young workers inside the nest have low levels of Pofor mRNA with no evidence of daily fluctuations in expression. As a result, the association of foraging expression with task behavior within a species changes depending on the time of day the individuals are sampled.
The amino acid protein sequence of foraging is highly conserved across social insects. Differences in foraging behaviors associated with this gene among social insect species are likely due to differences in gene regulation rather than evolutionary changes in the encoded protein. The task-specific expression patterns of foraging are consistent with the task-specific circadian rhythms observed in harvester ants. Whether the molecular clock plays a role in regulating foraging gene expression (or vice versa) remains to be determined. Our results represent the first time series analysis of foraging gene expression and underscore the importance of assaying time-related expression differences in behavioral studies. Understanding how this gene is regulated within species is critical to explaining the mechanism by which foraging influences behavior.
Division of labor is a striking feature observed in honey bees and many other social insects. Division of labor has been claimed to benefit fitness. In honey bees, the adult work force may be viewed as divided between non-foraging hive bees that rear brood and maintain the nest, and foragers that collect food outside the nest. Honey bee brood pheromone is a larval pheromone that serves as an excellent empirical tool to manipulate foraging behaviors and thus division of labor in the honey bee. Here we use two different doses of brood pheromone to alter the foraging stimulus environment, thus changing demographics of colony division of labor, to demonstrate how division of labor associated with brood rearing affects colony growth rate. We examine the effects of these different doses of brood pheromone on individual foraging ontogeny and specialization, colony level foraging behavior, and individual glandular protein synthesis. Low brood pheromone treatment colonies exhibited significantly higher foraging population, decreased age of first foraging and greater foraging effort, resulting in greater colony growth compared to other treatments. This study demonstrates how division of labor associated with brood rearing affects honey bee colony growth rate, a token of fitness.
Biologists have long been aware that adaptations should not be analysed in isolation from the function of the whole organism. Here, we address the equivalent issue at the scale of a social insect colony: the optimality of component behaviours in a partitioned sequence of tasks. In colonies of Atta colombica, a leaf-cutting ant, harvested leaf tissue is passed from foragers to nest workers that distribute, clean, shred and implant the tissue in fungal gardens. In four laboratory colonies of A. colombica, we found that the highest colony-wide rate of leaf tissue processing in the nest was achieved when leaf fragment sizes were suboptimal for individual delivery rate by foragers. Leaf-cutting ant colonies appear to compromise the efficiency of collecting leaf tissue in order to increase their ability to handle the material when it arrives in the nest. Such compromise reinforces the idea that behavioural adaptations, like adaptations in general, must be considered within the context of the larger entity of which they are a part.
adaptation; Atta colombica; foraging; leaf-cutting ant; optimality; task partitioning
We examined temporal polyethism in Pogonomyrmex rugosus, predicting a pattern of decreasing age from foragers to nest maintenance workers to individuals that were recruited to harvest a temporary food source. Nest maintenance workers were younger than foragers, as indicated by their heavier mass and lower mandibular wear. In contrast, recruited foragers were similar in mass to foragers but they displayed higher mandibular wear, suggesting that they were at least as old as foragers. Longevity estimates for marked individuals of these two latter task groups showed mixed results. Higher mandibular wear of recruited foragers suggests that they did not follow the normal sequence for temporal polyethism, but rather that they functioned as seed-millers, which should more quickly abrade their dentition. This would be the first demonstration of specialist milling individuals in a monomorphic seed-harvester ant.
Age polyethism; forager; Pogonomyrmex rugosus; nest maintenance workers; recruited foragers
In honeybee colonies, food collection is performed by a group of mostly sterile females called workers. After an initial nest phase, workers begin foraging for nectar and pollen, but tend to bias their collection towards one or the other. The foraging choice of honeybees is influenced by vitellogenin (vg), an egg-yolk precursor protein that is expressed although workers typically do not lay eggs. The forager reproductive ground plan hypothesis (RGPH) proposes an evolutionary path in which the behavioural bias toward collecting nectar or pollen on foraging trips is influenced by variation in reproductive physiology, such as hormone levels and vg gene expression. Recently, the connections between vg and foraging behaviour were challenged by Oldroyd and Beekman (2008), who concluded from their study that the ovary, and especially vg, played no role in foraging behaviour of bees. We address their challenge directly by manipulating vg expression by RNA interference- (RNAi) mediated gene knockdown in two honeybee genotypes with different foraging behaviour and reproductive physiology. We show that the effect of vg on the food-loading decisions of the workers occurs only in the genotype where timing of foraging onset (by age) is also sensitive to vg levels. In the second genotype, changing vg levels do not affect foraging onset or bias. The effect of vg on workers' age at foraging onset is explained by the well-supported double repressor hypothesis (DHR), which describes a mutually inhibitory relationship between vg and juvenile hormone (JH) — an endocrine factor that influences development, reproduction, and behaviour in many insects. These results support the RGPH and demonstrate how it intersects with an established mechanism of honeybee behavioural control.
Apis mellifera; juvenile hormone; reproductive ground plan hypothesis; RNA interference; social foraging; vitellogenin yolk protein
Caste polyethism has been recorded in some termite species, however the foraging behavior of subterranean termites remains poorly known. Heterotermes tenuis Hagen (Isoptera: Rhinotermitidae) is a subterranean termite that is native to Brazil and is an agricultural and urban pest. The aim of this study was to investigate which caste acts as scouts when searching for food sources and determinate the percentages of each caste present in the foraging territories of field colonies of H. tenuis. Our results showed no significant differences among the caste proportions present in the foraging territories of the three colonies studied in the field. Laboratory experiments showed that minor soldiers were the most frequent initiators of foraging activities. This result suggests that the exploratory phase of the foraging behavior may be regulated by the number of soldiers present in the foraging territories of each colony.
termites; Heterotermes tenuis; soldier; foraging behavior; polyethism
Young, unrelated queens may cooperate in colony founding (pleometrosis) in many species of ants. Whereas the founding queens of many 'advanced' species rely completely on body reserves in order to rear their first young, queens of the ponerine Pachycondyla 'inversa' forage for food. In founding associations, only one queen specializes in this risky task. Here we show that the division of labour is strongly affected by aggressive interactions between cofounding queens: the dominant remains in the nest and guards the brood, whereas the subordinate is forced to leave and forage. The frequency of queen antagonism increased with the duration since food was last added to the foraging arena. Egg-laying rates did not differ significantly between nest-mate queens, but dominant queens destroyed and ate some of the eggs laid by subordinates.
Leaf-cutting ants (Atta spp.) create physical pathways to support the transport of resources on which colony growth and reproduction depend. We determined the scaling relationship between the rate of resource acquisition and the size of the trail system and foraging workforce for 18 colonies of Atta colombica and Atta cephalotes. We examined conventional power-law scaling patterns, but did so in a multivariate analysis that reveals the simultaneous effects of forager number, trail length and trail width. Foraging rate (number of resource-laden ants returning to the nest per unit time) scaled at the 0.93 power of worker numbers, the –1.02 power of total trail length and the 0.65 power of trail width. These scaling exponents indicate that individual performance declines only slightly as more foragers are recruited to the workforce, but that trail length imposes a severe penalty on the foraging rate. A model of mass traffic flow predicts the allometric patterns for workforce and trail length, although the effect of trail width is unexpected and points to the importance of the little-known mechanisms that regulate a colony's investment in trail clearance. These results provide a point of comparison for the role that resource flows may play in allometric scaling patterns in other transport-dependent entities, such as human cities.
allometry; Atta; foraging; leaf-cutting ants; scaling; traffic flow
While a clear consensus is emerging that predators can play a major role in shaping terrestrial communities, basic natural history observations and simple quantifications of predation rates in complex terrestrial systems are lacking. The potential indirect effect of a large predatory ant, Paraponera clavata Fabricius (Formicidae: Ponerinae), on herbivores was determined on rainforest trees at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica and Barro Colorado Island in Panama. Prey and other food brought back to nests by 75 colonies of P. clavata were quantified, taking into account temporal, seasonal, and microhabitat variation for both foraging activity and composition of foraging booty. The dispersion and density of ant colonies and combined density with the mean amounts of prey retrieval were used to calculate rates of predation per hectare in the two forests. In addition, herbivory was measured on trees containing P. clavata and on trees where the ants were not foraging. Colonies at La Selva brought back significantly more nectar plus prey than those at Barro Colorado Island, but foraging patterns were similar in the two forests. At both forests, the ants were more active at night, and there was no significant seasonal or colonial variation in consumption of nectar, composition of foraging booty, and overall activity of the colonies. At La Selva, trees containing P. clavata colonies had the same levels of folivory as nearest neighbor trees without P. clavata but had significantly lower folivory than randomly selected trees. Predation by this ant was high in both forests, despite its omnivorous diet. This insect predator is part of potentially important top-down controls in these wet and moist forests.
La Selva; Costa Rica; Barro Colorado Island; Panama; foraging; predation; larvae; herbivory; indirect effects
Although natural selection in ants acts most strongly at the colony, or superorganismal level, foraging patterns have rarely been studied at that level, focusing instead on the behavior of individual foragers or groups of foragers. The experiments and observations in this paper reveal in broad strokes how colonies of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta Buren (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), allocate their available labor to foraging, how they disperse that force within their territory, and how this force changes with colony size, season and worker age. Territory area is positively related to colony size and the number of foragers, more so during the spring than fall. Changes of colony size and territory area are driven by seasonal variation of sexual and worker production, which in turn drive seasonal variation of worker age-distribution. During spring sexual production, colonies shrink because worker production falls below replacement. This loss is proportional to colony size, causing forager density in the spring to be negatively related to colony and territory size. In the fall, colonies emphasize worker production, bringing colony size back up. However, because smaller colonies curtailed spring worker production less than larger ones, their fall forager populations are proportionally greater, causing them to gain territory at the expense of large colonies. Much variation of territory area remains unexplained and can probably be attributed to pressure from neighboring colonies. Boundaries between territories are characterized by “no ants' zones” mostly devoid of fire ants. The forager population can be divided into a younger group of recruitable workers that wait for scouts to activate them to help retrieve large food finds. About one-third of the recruits wait near openings in the foraging tunnels that underlie the entire territory, while two-thirds wait in the nest. Recruitment to food is initially very rapid and local from the foraging tunnels, while sustained recruitment gradually involves the recruits waiting in the nest. As recruits age, they become scouts searching for food on the surface, and die about two weeks later. Foraging tunnels decrease in cross-sectional area with distance from the nest, in keeping with the gradual bleeding off of workers to the surface with distance. Foragers lack route-faithfulness, and having been marked and released at one point within the territory, they can be recaptured at any other point a day later. The size of the territory actually occupied may be limited during dry weather, resulting in very large no-ants' zones.
colony census; colony growth; division of labor; forager density; foraging tunnels; labor allocation; ortstreue; route faithfulness; seasonality; superorganism; territory; trail recruitment; worker age
Desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis, return to their nest when they are disturbed during their foraging trips. Training them to a landmark corridor enabled us to induce ants that were captured immediately after leaving the nest and transferred to an unknown area to start their foraging trips.1 However, most of the ants never traveled the entire foraging distance to the feeder, but aborted their runs after the landmark corridor was no longer visible. Therefore, apart from landmark information and path integrator, there are additional cues that determine the ants' foraging behavior. Considering the reduced straightness of the outbound runs, I argue that surface structure might have a remarkable impact on foraging desert ants.
desert ants; foraging behavior; landmarks; surface structure; training; feeding site
Foraging workers of grass-cutting ants (Atta vollenweideri) regularly carry grass fragments larger than their own body. Fragment length has been shown to influence the ants’ running speed and thereby the colony’s food intake rate. We investigated whether and how grass-cutting ants maintain stability when carrying fragments of two different lengths but identical mass.
Ants carried all fragments in an upright, backwards-tilted position, but held long fragments more vertically than short ones. All carrying ants used an alternating tripod gait, where mechanical stability was increased by overlapping stance phases of consecutive steps. The overlap was greatest for ants carrying long fragments, resulting in more legs contacting the ground simultaneously. For all ants, the projection of the total centre of mass (ant and fragment) was often outside the supporting tripod, i.e. the three feet that would be in stance for a non-overlapping tripod gait. Stability was only achieved through additional legs in ground contact. Tripod stability (quantified as the minimum distance of the centre of mass to the edge of the supporting tripod) was significantly smaller for ants with long fragments. Here, tripod stability was lowest at the beginning of each step, when the center of mass was near the posterior margin of the supporting tripod. By contrast, tripod stability was lowest at the end of each step for ants carrying short fragments. Consistently, ants with long fragments mainly fell backwards, whereas ants carrying short fragments mainly fell forwards or to the side. Assuming that transporting ants adjust neither the fragment angle nor the gait, they would be less stable and more likely to fall over.
In grass-cutting ants, the need to maintain static stability when carrying long grass fragments has led to multiple kinematic adjustments at the expense of a reduced material transport rate.
Leafcutter ants (Atta sexdens rubropilosa) (Forel 1908) have an elaborate social organization, complete with caste divisions. Activities carried out by specialist groups contribute to the overall success and survival of the colony when it is confronted with environmental challenges such as dehydration. Ants detect variations in humidity inside the nest and react by activating several types of behavior that enhance water uptake and decrease water loss, but it is not clear whether or not a single caste collects water regardless of the cost of bringing this resource back to the colony. Accordingly, we investigated water collection activities in three colonies of Atta sexdens rubropilosa experimentally exposed to water stress. Specifically, we analyzed whether or not the same ant caste foraged for water, regardless of the absolute energetic cost (distance) of transporting this resource back to the colony. Our experimental design offered water sources at 0 m, 1 m and 10 m from the nest. We studied the body size of ants near the water sources from the initial offer of water (time = 0) to 120 min, and tested for specialization. We observed a reduction in the average size and variance of ants that corroborated the specialization hypothesis. Although the temporal course of specialization changed with distance, the final outcome was similar among distances. Thus, we conclude that, for this species, a specialist (our use of the word “specialist” does not mean exclusive) task force is responsible for collecting water, regardless of the cost of transporting water back to the colony.
Atta sexdens rubropilosa; Water stress; Task division; Task specialization
The ecological success of social insects is often attributed to an increase in efficiency achieved through division of labor between workers in a colony. Much research has therefore focused on the mechanism by which a division of labor is implemented, i.e., on how tasks are allocated to workers. However, the important assumption that specialists are indeed more efficient at their work than generalist individuals—the “Jack-of-all-trades is master of none” hypothesis—has rarely been tested. Here, I quantify worker efficiency, measured as work completed per time, in four different tasks in the ant Temnothorax albipennis: honey and protein foraging, collection of nest-building material, and brood transports in a colony emigration. I show that individual efficiency is not predicted by how specialized workers were on the respective task. Worker efficiency is also not consistently predicted by that worker's overall activity or delay to begin the task. Even when only the worker's rank relative to nestmates in the same colony was used, specialization did not predict efficiency in three out of the four tasks, and more specialized workers actually performed worse than others in the fourth task (collection of sand grains). I also show that the above relationships, as well as median individual efficiency, do not change with colony size. My results demonstrate that in an ant species without morphologically differentiated worker castes, workers may nevertheless differ in their ability to perform different tasks. Surprisingly, this variation is not utilized by the colony—worker allocation to tasks is unrelated to their ability to perform them. What, then, are the adaptive benefits of behavioral specialization, and why do workers choose tasks without regard for whether they can perform them well? We are still far from an understanding of the adaptive benefits of division of labor in social insects.
Social insects, including ants, bees, and termites, may make up 75% of the world's insect biomass. This success is often attributed to their complex colony organization. Each individual is thought to specialize in a particular task and thus become an “expert” for this task. Researchers have long assumed that the ecological success of social insects derives from division of labor, just as the increase in productivity achieved in human societies; however, this assumption has not been thoroughly tested. Here, I have measured task performance of specialized and unspecialized ants. In the ant species studied here, it turns out that specialists are no better at their jobs than generalists, and sometimes even perform worse. In addition, most of the work in the colony is not performed by the most efficient workers. So the old adage “The Jack of all trades is a master of none” does not seem to apply to these ants, suggesting that we may have to revise our understanding of the benefits of colony organization
The assumption that the success of social insects rests on the increased efficiency of dividing tasks within the colony is challenged by evidence that specialists are not always better at their jobs.