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PLoS One. 2014 Oct 15;9(10):e109436. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109436. eCollection 2014.

The role of colony size on tunnel branching morphogenesis in ant nests.

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Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition Animale, Université de Toulouse, Toulouse, France; Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition Animale, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique UMR5169, Toulouse, France.
School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia.
Complex Systems Laboratory (ICREA-UPF), Barcelona, Spain; Institut de Biologia Evolutiva (CSIC-UPF), Barcelona, Spain.
Laboratoire d'Informatique de Nantes-Atlantique, Polytech'Nantes, Nantes, France.


Many ant species excavate nests that are made up of chambers and interconnecting tunnels. There is a general trend of an increase in nest complexity with increasing population size. This complexity reflects a higher ramification and anastomosis of tunnels that can be estimated by the meshedness coefficient of the tunnelling networks. It has long been observed that meshedness increases with colony size within and across species, but no explanation has been provided so far. Since colony size is a strong factor controlling collective digging, a high value of the meshedness could simply be a side effect of a larger number of workers. To test this hypothesis, we study the digging dynamics in different group size of ants Messor sancta. We build a model of collective digging that is calibrated from the experimental data. Model's predictions successfully reproduce the topological properties of tunnelling networks observed in experiments, including the increase of the meshedness with group size. We then use the model to investigate situations in which collective digging progresses outward from a centre corresponding to the way tunnelling behaviour occurs in field conditions. Our model predicts that, when all other parameters are kept constant, an increase of the number of workers leads to a higher value of the meshedness and a transition from tree-like structures to highly meshed networks. Therefore we conclude that colony size is a key factor determining tunnelling network complexity in ant colonies.

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