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Oecologia. 2008 Nov;158(1):165-75. doi: 10.1007/s00442-008-1113-z. Epub 2008 Jul 31.

Soil temperature, digging behaviour, and the adaptive value of nest depth in South American species of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants.

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Department of Behavioural Physiology and Sociobiology (Zoology II), Biocenter, University of Würzburg, Am Hubland, 97074, Würzburg, Germany.


In leaf-cutting ants, workers are expected to excavate the nest at a soil depth that provides suitable temperatures, since the symbiotic fungus cultivated inside nest chambers is highly dependent on temperature for proper growth. We hypothesize that the different nesting habits observed in Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants in the South American continent, i.e. superficial and subterranean nests, depend on the occurrence, across the soil profile, of the temperature range preferred by workers for digging. To test this hypothesis, we first explored whether the nesting habits in the genus Acromyrmex are correlated with the prevailing soil temperature regimes at the reported nest locations. Second, we experimentally investigated whether Acromyrmex workers engaged in digging use soil temperature as a cue to decide where to excavate the nest. A bibliographic survey of nesting habits of 21 South American Acromyrmex species indicated that nesting habits are correlated with the soil temperature regimes: the warmer the soil at the nesting site, the higher the number of species inhabiting subterranean nests, as compared to superficial nests. For those species showing nesting plasticity, subterranean nests occurred in hot soils, and superficial nests in cold ones. Experimental results indicated that Acromyrmex lundi workers use soil temperature as an orientation cue to decide where to start digging, and respond to rising and falling soil temperatures by moving to alternative digging places, or by stopping digging, respectively. The soil temperature range preferred for digging, between 20 degrees C and maximally 30.6 degrees C, matched the range at which colony growth would be maximized. It is suggested that temperature-sensitive digging guides digging workers towards their preferred range of soil temperature. Workers' thermopreferences lead to a concentration of digging activity at the soil layers where the preferred range occurs, and therefore, to the construction of superficial nests in cold soils, and subterranean ones in hot soils. The adaptive value of the temperature-related nesting habits, and the temperature-sensitive digging, is further discussed.

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