Digging effort in leaf-cutting ant queens (Atta sexdens rubropilosa) and its effects on survival and colony growth during the claustral phase
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- Camargo, R.S., Forti, L.C., Fujihara, R.T. et al. Insect. Soc. (2011) 58: 17. doi:10.1007/s00040-010-0110-5
Nest foundation in the leaf-cutting ant Atta sexdens is claustral, and the single queen completely relies on its body reserves throughout, approximately, 9 weeks until the first workers emerge and initiate foraging. Nest digging is much time- and energy-consuming, and it is an open question how queens decide on the length of the tunnel they dig and therefore the depth of the initial chamber. Shallow founding nests may be energetically cheaper to dig, but queens may be more exposed to changing environmental variables. Deeper nests, on the other hand, may be climatically more stable and suitable, but more expensive to dig. We hypothesized that the maximal nest depth excavated by Atta founding queens may represent the outcome of an evolutionary trade-off between maximizing nest depth and minimizing energy expenditure during digging, so as to save energy for the long claustral phase. We tested this hypothesis by comparing the fitness consequences of increased digging effort in queens that were experimentally stimulated to excavate a complete founding nest either once, twice or three times consecutively compared to control queens that did not dig. Fitness was quantified as mortality rates, rates of egg-laying and offspring production, and size of the fungus garden until the emergence of the first workers. Results showed that, in contrast with the initial expectations, fungus growth, egg-laying rates and offspring production were not affected by the increased digging effort in the experimentally induced successive excavations. However, a significant higher mortality was observed in queens with increased digging effort, i.e., those that dug two or three nests consecutively. It is argued that in queens a behavioral mechanism for the control of nest depth has evolutionary been selected for as a trade-off between maximizing nest depth, to favor protection of the queen against unsuitable environmental variables, and minimizing energy expenditure during digging, which significantly affects survival.