, Volume 66, Issue 10, pp 1407-1420
Date: 16 Aug 2012

How is activity distributed among and within tasks in Temnothorax ants?

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How social insect colonies behave results from the actions of their workers. Individual variation among workers in their response to various tasks is necessary for the division of labor within colonies. A worker may be active in only a subset of tasks (specialist), perform all tasks (elite), or exhibit no particular pattern of task activity (idiosyncratic). Here we examine how worker activity is distributed among and within tasks in ants of the genus Temnothorax. We found that workers exhibited elitism within a situation, i.e., in particular sets of tasks, such as those associated with emigrations, nest building, or foraging. However, there was weak specialization for working in a particular situation. A few workers exhibited elitism across all situations, i.e., high performance in all tasks in all situations. Within any particular task, the distribution of activity among workers was skewed, with few ants performing most of the work and most ants performing very little of the work. We further found that workers persisted in their task preference over days, with the same individuals performing most of the work day after day. Interestingly, colonies were robust to the removal of these highly active workers; they were replaced by other individuals that were previously less active. This replacement was not short-lived; when the removed individuals were returned to the colony, not all of them resumed their prior high activity levels, and not all the workers that replaced them reduced their activity. Thus, even though some workers specialize in tasks within a particular situation and are persistent in performing them, task allocation in a colony is plastic and colonies can withstand removal of highly active individuals.