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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Dec 22;276(1677):4373-80. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1244. Epub 2009 Sep 23.

Flexible task allocation and the organization of work in ants.

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School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Road, Bristol BS81UG, UK.


Flexibility in task performance is essential for a robust system of division of labour. We investigated what factors determine which social insect workers respond to colony-level changes in task demand. We used radio-frequency identification technology to compare the roles of corpulence, age, spatial location and previous activity (intra-nest/extra-nest) in determining whether worker ants (Temnothorax albipennis) respond to an increase in demand for foraging or brood care. The less corpulent ants took on the extra foraging, irrespective of their age, previous activity or location in the nest, supporting a physiological threshold model. We found no relationship between ants that tended the extra brood and corpulence, age, spatial location or previous activity, but ants that transported the extra brood to the main brood pile were less corpulent and had high previous intra-nest activity. This supports spatial task-encounter and physiological threshold models for brood transport. Our data suggest a flexible task-allocation system allowing the colony to respond rapidly to changing needs, using a simple task-encounter system for generalized tasks, combined with physiologically based response thresholds for more specialized tasks. This could provide a social insect colony with a robust division of labour, flexibly allocating the workforce in response to current needs.

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