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Naturwissenschaften. 2016 Aug;103(7-8):66. doi: 10.1007/s00114-016-1386-8. Epub 2016 Jul 18.

Migration control: a distance compensation strategy in ants.

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School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Life Sciences Building, 24 Tyndall Avenue, Bristol, UK.
Department of Engineering Design and Mathematics, UWE Bristol, Frenchay Campus, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol, UK.
School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Life Sciences Building, 24 Tyndall Avenue, Bristol, UK.


Migratory behaviour forms an intrinsic part of the life histories of many organisms but is often a high-risk process. Consequently, varied strategies have evolved to negate such risks, but empirical data relating to their functioning are limited. In this study, we use the model system of the house-hunting ant Temnothorax albipennis to demonstrate a key strategy that can shorten migration exposure times in a group of social insects. Colonies of these ants frequently migrate to new nest sites, and due to the nature of their habitat, the distances over which they do so are variable, leading to fluctuating potential costs dependent on migration parameters. We show that colonies of this species facultatively alter the dynamics of a migration and so compensate for the distance over which a given migration occurs. Specifically, they achieve this by modulating the rate of 'tandem running', in which workers teach each other the route to a new nest site. Using this method, colonies are able to engage a larger number of individuals in the migration process when the distance to be traversed is greater, and furthermore, the system appears to be based on perceived encounter rate at the individual level. This form of decentralised control highlights the adaptive nature of a behaviour of ecological importance, and indicates that the key to its robustness lies in the use of simple rules. Additionally, our results suggest that such coordinated group reactions are central to achieving the high levels of ecological success seen in many eusocial organisms.


Cost-benefit trade-offs; Decentralised systems; Ecological robustness; Group migration; Temnothorax albipennis

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