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J Theor Biol. 2002 Apr 7;215(3):363-73.

Emergent polyethism as a consequence of increased colony size in insect societies.

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Laboratoire d'Ethologie et Cognition Animale, CNRS-ERS 2382, Université Paul Sabatier, 118 route de Narbonne, 31062 Toulouse Cédex, France.


A threshold reinforcement model in insect societies is explored over a range of colony sizes and levels of task demand to examine their effects upon worker polyethism. We find that increasing colony size while keeping the demand proportional to the colony size causes an increase in the differentiation among individuals in their activity levels, thus explaining the occurrence of elitism (individuals that do a disproportionately large proportion of work) in insect societies. Similar results were obtained when the overall work demand is increased while keeping the colony size constant. Our model can reproduce a whole suite of distributions of the activity levels among colony members that have been found in empirical studies. When there are two tasks, we demonstrate that increasing demand and colony size generates highly specialized individuals, but without invoking any strict assumptions about spatial organization of work or any inherent abilities of individuals to tackle different tasks. Importantly, such specialization only occurs above a critical colony size such that smaller colonies contain a set of undifferentiated equally inactive individuals while larger colonies contain both active specialists and inactive generalists, as has been found in empirical studies and is predicted from other theoretical considerations.

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