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Tracking Individuals Shows Spatial Fidelity Is a Key Regulator of Ant Social Organization

Science  31 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6136, pp. 1090-1093
DOI: 10.1126/science.1234316

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It's an Ant's Life

Eusocial insects live in highly organized societies where groups of individuals carry out specific tasks; for example, caring for the eggs, cleaning the nest, or foraging, which might suggest the presence of an advanced form of organization, similar to what might be expected from more cognitively advanced species. Mersch et al. (p. 1090, published online 18 April) tracked individual ant movements and interactions to show that their precise social organization results from temporal changes in the spatial location of workers. As they aged, ants largely progressed from being nurses located near the queen, to nest cleaners who move throughout the colony, and finally to foragers moving in and out at the colony edges.

Abstract

Ants live in organized societies with a marked division of labor among workers, but little is known about how this division of labor is generated. We used a tracking system to continuously monitor individually tagged workers in six colonies of the ant Camponotus fellah over 41 days. Network analyses of more than 9 million interactions revealed three distinct groups that differ in behavioral repertoires. Each group represents a functional behavioral unit with workers moving from one group to the next as they age. The rate of interactions was much higher within groups than between groups. The precise information on spatial and temporal distribution of all individuals allowed us to calculate the expected rates of within- and between-group interactions. These values suggest that the network of interaction within colonies is primarily mediated by age-induced changes in the spatial location of workers.

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