, Volume 65, Issue 5, pp 969-982
Date: 04 Dec 2010

Leaf-cutter ants with worn mandibles cut half as fast, spend twice the energy, and tend to carry instead of cut

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Abstract

The importance of mechanical wear in the behavioral ecology and energetics of small organisms is an open question. We investigated wear in leaf-cutter ants, Atta cephalotes, because their cutting technique can be imitated and the leaves are the main energy source for the colony. We found that a razor-sharp (50-nm radius) “V-blade” that cuts leaves between the first and second mandibular teeth was dulled (∼10-μm radius) and often nearly worn away on foragers. We found that the force required to cut standard leaves, using mandibles removed from foragers cutting in the wild, varied by a factor of 2.5 with tooth wear, defined as the difference between pupal and actual tooth length. We also found that wear significantly reduced the cutting rate. From the distribution of wear among the cutting foragers, we estimated that the wild colony would have spent 44% less of both energy and time making the observed cuts if the cutters’ mandibles had all been pristine. Finally, wear correlated with behavioral differences—foragers with the most worn 10% of mandibles almost exclusively carried rather than cut. This previously unreported form of task partitioning suggests that eusociality may extend useful lifespans by making it possible to switch tasks as skills decline. We developed a model, assuming that ants do work at a constant rate proportional to their mass, to predict the cutting rate from head width, tooth wear, and force to cut leaves with a scalpel (R = 0.62), and we used this estimate to argue that the partitioning of cutting and carrying was sub-optimal but better than random. Wear’s strong effect on performance may promote wear-avoiding behavior and wear-resistant mandible composition; it may affect leaf selection and worker lifespan and it raises the possibility that wear is a similarly important constraint for many other small organisms.

Communicated by J. Heinze