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

Abstract

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.

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

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Correspondence to Deborah M. Gordon.

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Gordon, D. The rewards of restraint in the collective regulation of foraging by harvester ant colonies. Nature 498, 91–93 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12137

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