Radio tagging reveals the roles of corpulence, experience and social information in ant decision making
Ant colonies are factories within fortresses (Oster and Wilson 1978). They run on resources foraged from an outside world fraught with danger. On what basis do individual ants decide to leave the safety of the nest? We investigated the relative roles of social information (returning nestmates), individual experience and physiology (lipid stores/corpulence) in predicting which ants leave the nest and when. We monitored Temnothorax albipennis workers individually using passive radio-frequency identification technology, a novel procedure as applied to ants. This method allowed the matching of individual corpulence measurements to activity patterns of large numbers of individuals over several days. Social information and physiology are both good predictors of when an ant leaves the nest. Positive feedback from social information causes bouts of activity at the colony level. When certain social information is removed from the system by preventing ants returning, physiology best predicts which ants leave the nest and when. Individual experience is strongly related to physiology. A small number of lean individuals are responsible for most external trips. An individual’s nutrient status could be a useful cue in division of labour, especially when public information from other ants is unavailable.