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The wisdom of the acorn: social foraging in Temnothorax ants

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The coordination of group behavior in the social insects is representative of a broader phenomenon in nature, emergent biological complexity. In such systems, it is believed that large-scale patterns result

The coordination of group behavior in the social insects is representative of a broader phenomenon in nature, emergent biological complexity. In such systems, it is believed that large-scale patterns result from the interaction of relatively simple subunits. This dissertation involved the study of one such system: the social foraging of the ant Temnothorax rugatulus. Physically tiny with small population sizes, these cavity-dwelling ants provide a good model system to explore the mechanisms and ultimate origins of collective behavior in insect societies. My studies showed that colonies robustly exploit sugar water. Given a choice between feeders unequal in quality, colonies allocate more foragers to the better feeder. If the feeders change in quality, colonies are able to reallocate their foragers to the new location of the better feeder. These qualities of flexibility and allocation could be explained by the nature of positive feedback (tandem run recruitment) that these ants use. By observing foraging colonies with paint-marked ants, I was able to determine the `rules' that individuals follow: foragers recruit more and give up less when they find a better food source. By altering the nutritional condition of colonies, I found that these rules are flexible - attuned to the colony state. In starved colonies, individual ants are more likely to explore and recruit to food sources than in well-fed colonies. Similar to honeybees, Temmnothorax foragers appear to modulate their exploitation and recruitment behavior in response to environmental and social cues. Finally, I explored the influence of ecology (resource distribution) on the foraging success of colonies. Larger colonies showed increased consistency and a greater rate of harvest than smaller colonies, but this advantage was mediated by the distribution of resources. While patchy or rare food sources exaggerated the relative success of large colonies, regularly (or easily found) distributions leveled the playing field for smaller colonies. Social foraging in ant societies can best be understood when we view the colony as a single organism and the phenotype - group size, communication, and individual behavior - as integrated components of a homeostatic unit.

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  • 2014

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A recruit's dilemma: collective decision-making and information content in the ant Temnothorax rugatulus

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An insect society needs to share information about important resources in order to collectively exploit them. This task poses a dilemma if the colony must consider multiple resource types, such

An insect society needs to share information about important resources in order to collectively exploit them. This task poses a dilemma if the colony must consider multiple resource types, such as food and nest sites. How does it allocate workers appropriately to each resource, and how does it adapt its recruitment communication to the specific needs of each resource type? In this dissertation, I investigate these questions in the ant Temnothorax rugatulus.

In Chapter 1, I summarize relevant past work on food and nest recruitment. Then I describe T. rugatulus and its recruitment behavior, tandem running, and I explain its suitability for these questions. In Chapter 2, I investigate whether food and nest recruiters behave differently. I report two novel behaviors used by recruiters during their interaction with nestmates. Food recruiters perform these behaviors more often than nest recruiters, suggesting that they convey information about target type. In Chapter 3, I investigate whether colonies respond to a tradeoff between foraging and emigration by allocating their workforce adaptively. I describe how colonies responded when I posed a tradeoff by manipulating colony need for food and shelter and presenting both resources simultaneously. Recruitment and visitation to each target partially matched the predictions of the tradeoff hypothesis. In Chapter 4, I address the tuned error hypothesis, which states that the error rate in recruitment is adaptively tuned to the patch area of the target. Food tandem leaders lost followers at a higher rate than nest tandem leaders. This supports the tuned error hypothesis, because food targets generally have larger patch areas than nest targets with small entrances.

This work shows that animal groups face tradeoffs as individual animals do. It also suggests that colonies spatially allocate their workforce according to resource type. Investigating recruitment for multiple resource types gives a better understanding of exploitation of each resource type, how colonies make collective decisions under conflicting goals, as well as how colonies manage the exploitation of multiple types of resources differently. This has implications for managing the health of economically important social insects such as honeybees or invasive fire ants.

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  • 2019