Tracking whole colonies shows ants make career moves

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Because all the workers in an ant colony look the same, tracking their movements and interactions by eye is fiendishly difficult. Instead, Danielle Mersch and her colleagues tagged every single worker in entire colonies and used a computer to track them, accumulating what they say is the largest-ever data set on ant interactions.


The biologists, based at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, have found that the workers fall into three social groups that perform different roles: nursing the queen and young; cleaning the colony; and foraging for food. The different groups move around different parts of the nest, and the insects tend to graduate from one group to another as they age, the researchers write in a paper published today in Science1.

“The paper is a game-changer, in the size and detail of the data set that was collected,” says Anna Dornhaus, an entomologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Different methods of automatically tracking animal behaviour have recently been developed, and this is one of the first empirical studies that have come out as a result.”

The team reared six colonies of carpenter ants (Camponotus fellah) in the lab and tagged each worker with paper containing a unique barcode-like symbol. The colonies — each comprising more than 100 ants — lived in flat enclosures filmed by overhead cameras. A computer automatically recognized the tags and recorded each individual’s position twice per second (see video below). Over 41 days, the researchers collected more than 2.4 billion readings and documented 9.4 million interactions between the workers.

The researchers found that around 40% of the workers were nurses, which almost always stayed with the queen and her brood. Another 30% were foragers, which gathered most of the colony’s food and were found near the entrance to the nest. The rest were cleaners, and these were more likely to visit the colony’s rubbish heaps.

Written By: Ed Yong
continue to source article at nature.com

10 COMMENTS

  1. Very captivating (creatures) or should I say an evolved living organisms to avoid confusion.I’m sure I will be reading more about them as scientists shed more light on their social life and on their surviving .adequacy.

  2. Way wicked! Maybe because foraging is the most dangerous job of the three, older foragers maximises the possible useful life of an ant, thus saving resources?

    Got to give it to the researchers, tagging every ant in a colony? That takes enormous patients, to say the least.

    EDIT: Certainly studying other ant species will be very interesting indeed to see if this trend is universal. Also, I wondered if population size would affect the simulation, you never know with social animals…

  3. @OP – The biologists, based at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, have found that the workers fall into three social groups that perform different roles: nursing the queen and young; cleaning the colony; and foraging for food. The different groups move around different parts of the nest, and the insects tend to graduate from one group to another as they age,

    While looking at detail is adding to knowledge about ants, these specialisms have been well known in honey bees for a long time.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western-honey-bee

    For the first 10 days of their lives, the female worker bees clean the hive and feed the larvae. After this, they begin building comb cells. On days 16 through 20, a worker receives nectar and pollen from older workers and stores it. After the 20th day, a worker leaves the hive and spends the remainder of its life as a forager.

  4. All I know about ants is, that they aren’t stupid. A house in which I stayed for about a month once had an invasion of ‘flying’ ants in the kitchen. My friend’s mother’s response was to ‘bung’ some Ant Doom powder in the path of the ants’ invasion, which was along the rear of a work surface, and hope for the best. After about half an hour, we saw the ants retreating – in an orderly line – to the small hole through which they had entered the room, but this wasn’t the best bit.

    An ant was still going towards the poison – I saw, myself, clearly another ant turn around from near the hole and return to the endangered ant, and when it reached it , both turned back to the hole. It had ‘gone back for a friend’, frankly. That is complex and compassionate behaviour – of which even some humans would be proud.

    • In reply to #8 by TanyaK:

      All I know about ants is, that they aren’t stupid. A house in which I stayed for about a month once had an invasion of ‘flying’ ants in the kitchen. My friend’s mother’s response was to ‘bung’ some Ant Doom powder in the path of the ants’ invasion, which was along the rear of a work surface, and hop…

      Have you seen “A bug’s life” and “Antz”? I think you’d love them.

      • In reply to #9 by DHudson:

        In reply to #8 by TanyaK:

        All I know about ants is, that they aren’t stupid. A house in which I stayed for about a month once had an invasion of ‘flying’ ants in the kitchen. My friend’s mother’s response was to ‘bung’ some Ant Doom powder in the path of the ants’ invasion, which was along the rear…

        Quote from DHudson: ” Have you seen “A bug’s life” and “Antz”? I think you’d love them.”

        Thanks – I’ll check them out……. I just have, and the real ants seemed a little nicer.:D

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