, Volume 66, Issue 5, pp 711-720

Better the nest site you know: decision-making during nest migrations by the Pharaoh’s ant

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Abstract

Animals frequently have to decide between alternative resources and in social insects these individual choices produce a colony-level decision. The choice of nest site is a particularly critical decision for a social insect colony to make, but the decision making process has still only been studied in a few species. In this study, we investigated nest selection by the Pharaoh’s ant, Monomorium pharaonis, a species renowned for its propensity to migrate and its use of multi-component trail pheromones to organise decision-making in other contexts. When presented with the choice of familiar and novel nests of equal quality in a Y set-up, colonies preferentially migrated towards the familiar nest, suggesting a form of colony-level ‘memory’ of potential nest sites. However, if the novel nest was superior to the familiar nest, then colonies began migrating initially to the familiar nest, but then redirected their migration to the superior quality novel nest. This may be an effective method of reducing colony exposure while searching for an optimum nest site. Branches that had previously led to a selected nest were attractive to ants in subsequent migrations, suggesting that trail pheromones mediate the decision making process. The adaptive, pheromone-based organisation of nest-site selection by Pharaoh’s ants matches their ephemeral environment and is likely to contribute to their success as a 'tramp' species.

Communicated by L. Keller