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Metabolic and behavioral integration in social insect colonies

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In social insect colonies, as with individual animals, the rates of biological processes scale with body size. The remarkable explanatory power of metabolic allometry in ecology and evolutionary biology derives

In social insect colonies, as with individual animals, the rates of biological processes scale with body size. The remarkable explanatory power of metabolic allometry in ecology and evolutionary biology derives from the great diversity of life exhibiting a nonlinear scaling pattern in which metabolic rates are not proportional to mass, but rather exhibit a hypometric relationship with body size. While one theory suggests that the supply of energy is a major physiological constraint, an alternative theory is that the demand for energy is regulated by behavior. The central hypothesis of this dissertation research is that increases in colony size reduce the proportion of individuals actively engaged in colony labor with consequences for energetic scaling at the whole-colony level of biological organization. A combination of methods from comparative physiology and animal behavior were developed to investigate scaling relationships in laboratory-reared colonies of the seed-harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex californicus. To determine metabolic rates, flow-through respirometry made it possible to directly measure the carbon dioxide production and oxygen consumption of whole colonies. By recording video of colony behavior, for which ants were individually paint-marked for identification, it was possible to reconstruct the communication networks through which information is transmitted throughout the colony. Whole colonies of P. californicus were found to exhibit a robust hypometric allometry in which mass-specific metabolic rates decrease with increasing colony size. The distribution of walking speeds also scaled with colony size so that larger colonies were composed of relatively more inactive ants than smaller colonies. If colonies were broken into random collections of workers, metabolic rates scaled isometrically, but when entire colonies were reduced in size while retaining functionality (queens, juveniles, workers), they continued to exhibit a metabolic hypometry. The communication networks in P. californicus colonies contain a high frequency of feed-forward interaction patterns consistent with those of complex regulatory systems. Furthermore, the scaling of these communication pathways with size is a plausible mechanism for the regulation of whole-colony metabolic scaling. The continued development of a network theory approach to integrating behavior and metabolism will reveal insights into the evolution of collective animal behavior, ecological dynamics, and social cohesion.

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  • 2012