The rewards of restraint in the collective regulation of foraging by harvester ant colonies

An Addendum to this article was published on 18 January 2017


Collective behaviour, arising from local interactions1, allows groups to respond to changing conditions. Long-term studies have shown that the traits of individual mammals and birds are associated with their reproductive success2,3,4,5,6, but little is known about the evolutionary ecology of collective behaviour in natural populations. An ant colony operates without central control, regulating its activity through a network of local interactions7. This work shows that variation among harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) colonies in collective response to changing conditions8 is related to variation in colony lifetime reproductive success in the production of offspring colonies. Desiccation costs are high for harvester ants foraging in the desert9,10. More successful colonies tend to forage less when conditions are dry, and show relatively stable foraging activity when conditions are more humid. Restraint from foraging does not compromise a colony’s long-term survival; colonies that fail to forage at all on many days survive as long, over the colony’s 20–30-year lifespan, as those that forage more regularly. Sensitivity to conditions in which to reduce foraging activity may be transmissible from parent to offspring colony. These results indicate that natural selection is shaping the collective behaviour that regulates foraging activity, and that the selection pressure, related to climate, may grow stronger if the current drought in their habitat persists.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Foraging activity on dry days is associated with reproductive success.
Figure 2: No survival cost of not foraging.


  1. 1

    Pratt, S. C. & Sumpter, D. J. T. A tunable algorithm for collective decision-making. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 15906–15910 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Clutton-Brock, T. & Sheldon, B. C. Individuals and populations: the role of long-term, individual-based studies of animals in ecology and evolutionary biology. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25, 562–573 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Garant, D. Kruuk, L. E. B., McCleery, R. H. & Sheldon, B. C. Evolution in a changing environment: a case study with great tit fledging mass. Am. Nat. 164, E115–E129 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Altmann, S. A. Diets of yearling female primates (Papio cynocephalus) predict lifetime fitness. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 88, 420–423 (1991)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Nussey, D. H., Wilson, A. J. & Brommer, J. E. The evolutionary ecology of individual phenotypic plasticity in wild populations. J. Evol. Biol. 20, 831–844 (2007)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Moyes, K. et al. Exploring individual quality in a wild population of red deer. J. Anim. Ecol. 78, 406–413 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Gordon, D. M. Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior. (Princeton Univ. Press, 2010)

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Dingemanse, N. J., Kazem, A. J., Réale, D. & Wright, J. Behavioural reaction norms: animal personality meets individual plasticity. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25, 81–89 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Lighton, J. R. & Bartholomew, G. A. Standard energy metabolism of a desert harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex rugosus: effects of temperature, body mass, group size, and humidity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 85, 4765–4769 (1988)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Lighton, J. R. B. & Feener, D. H., Jr Water-loss rate and cuticular permeability in foragers of the desert ant Pogonomyrmex rugosus. Physiol. Zool. 62, 1232–1256 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Gordon, D. M. & Kulig, A. W. Founding, foraging and fighting: colony size and the spatial distribution of harvester ant nests. Ecology 77, 2393–2409 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Gordon, D. M. Behavioral flexibility and the foraging ecology of seed-eating ants. Am. Nat. 138, 379–411 (1991)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Gordon, D. M. & Kulig, A. W. The effect of neighboring colonies on mortality in harvester ants. J. Anim. Ecol. 67, 141–148 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Ingram, K. K., Pilko, A., Heer, J. & Gordon, D. M. Colony life history and lifetime reproductive success of red harvester ant colonies. J. Anim. Ecol. 82, 540–550 (2013)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Gordon, D. M. How colony growth affects forager intrusion in neighboring harvester ant colonies. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 31, 417–427 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Gordon, D. M. The development of an ant colony's foraging range. Anim. Behav. 49, 649–659 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Gordon, D. M., Holmes, S. & Nacu, S. The short-term regulation of foraging in harvester ants. Behav. Ecol. 19, 217–222 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Gordon, D. M., Guetz, A., Greene, M. J. & Holmes, S. Colony variation in the collective regulation of foraging by harvester ants. Behav. Ecol. 22, 429–435 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Prabhakar, B., Dektar, K. N. & Gordon, D. M. The regulation of ant colony foraging activity without spatial information. PLoS Comp. Biol. 8, e1002670 (2012)

    ADS  MathSciNet  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Beverly, B. D., McLendon, H., Nacu, S., Holmes, S. & Gordon, D. M. How site fidelity leads to individual differences in the foraging activity of harvester ants. Behav. Ecol. 20, 633–638 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Adler, F. R. & Gordon, D. M. Optimization, conflict, and non-overlapping foraging ranges in ants. Am. Nat. 162, 529–543 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Davidson, D. W. Some consequences of diffuse competition in a desert ant community. Am. Nat. 116, 92–105 (1980)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Gordon, D. M. The spatial scale of seed collection by harvester ants. Oecologia 95, 479–487 (1993)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Cassill, D. L. & Tschinkel, W. R. Allocation of liquid food to larvae via trophallaxis in colonies of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Anim. Behav. 50, 801–813 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Gordon, D. M. & Holldobler, B. Worker longevity in harvester ants. Psyche (Stuttg.) 94, 341–346 (1987)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Ingram, K. K., Kleeman, L. & Peteru, S. Differential regulation of the foraging gene associated with task behaviors in harvester ants. BMC Ecol. 11, 19 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Johnson, R. A. & Gibbs, A. G. Effect of mating stage on water balance, cuticular hydrocarbons and metabolism in the desert harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus. J. Insect Physiol. 50, 943–953 (2004)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Thanks to the many people who helped with field work: in 1986 and 1987, K. Roth; in 2011, X. Ampuero, K. Dektar, M. Greene, J. Hickman, A. Merrell and N. Pinter-Wollman; in 2012, J. Queirolo, J. Rasiel, C. Wayne; in both 2011 and 2012, S. Crow, L. Howard and E. Pless. Many thanks to M. Coram for statistical advice and help. I am grateful to D. Kennedy and J. Ober for helpful discussions and to M. Feldman and W. Flesch for comments on the manuscript. The work was funded by the Stanford Office of the Dean of Research, Stanford Emergence of Cooperation Project and the National Science Foundation grant IOS-0718631.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Deborah M. Gordon.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-2. (PDF 97 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Gordon, D. The rewards of restraint in the collective regulation of foraging by harvester ant colonies. Nature 498, 91–93 (2013).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing