, Volume 49, Issue 5, pp 387-392

Task partitioning, division of labour and nest compartmentalisation collectively isolate hazardous waste in the leafcutting ant Atta cephalotes

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We studied the organisation of garbage disposal and management in the leafcutting ant Atta cephalotes. The nest of this species has an internal garbage heap to which waste from the fungus garden is taken. The transport of waste from the fungus gardens to the garbage heaps is an example of task partitioning. Ninety-four percent of the garbage loads transferred from the fungus garden to the garbage heap were transferred indirectly via a caching site just outside the garbage heap entrance. A further 3% were transferred directly from a fungus garden worker to a garbage heap worker, again just outside the heap entrance. Only 3% were taken directly to the garbage heap without task partitioning. This is the first described example of task partitioning in insect societies for work other than foraging and the first example of task partitioning occurring entirely within the nest. Furthermore, there is a strong division of labour between the fungus garden workers and the garbage heap workers, with garbage workers hardly ever leaving the heap. Division of labour is reinforced by aggressive behaviour directed towards workers contaminated with garbage. This pattern of work organisation minimises contact between garbage heap workers, who are probably contaminated with pathogens hazardous to both the ants and their symbiotic fungus, and both fungus garden workers and the fungus garden. Task partitioning, division of labour (reinforced by aggression) and nest compartmentalisation act synergistically to isolate the hazardous garbage heap from the fungus gardens.

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