, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 222-241
Date: 08 Sep 2011

The Construction of Turrets for Nest Ventilation in the Grass-Cutting Ant Atta vollenweideri: Import and Assembly of Building Materials

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Abstract

Besides the excavation of underground nest chambers, Atta vollenweideri grass-cutting ants build ventilation turrets on the topmost openings of their huge nests. Turret construction was studied in a laboratory colony, addressing the question whether turrets are simply heaps of disposed soil, or result from the import and a particular spatial arrangement of materials. The colony was daily offered different building materials, i.e., clay, coarse and fine sands, which workers collected and deposited around a nest opening to construct a turret. After 10 days, the spatial arrangement of the different building materials, offered either simultaneously or consecutively in independent experiments, was characterized via thin sections and micromorphological analysis of the turret’s walls. Workers did not select particular materials to be imported for turret building, but were selective in their spatial distribution and assembly into the turret structure. Particular types of microstructures were observed depending on the available materials, such as simple piles of sands, porous fabrics only composed of clay pellets, or fabrics with clay and sands combined. Turrets were very dynamic structures: while most imported materials were initially piled up at the shortest distance from the source, a marked subsequent material redistribution occurred as the turret grew, resulting in a new, mixed structure. Material re-assembly was particular evident when clay and sands were offered consecutively: a remarkable tendency to construct microstructures combining both materials was observed, i.e., clays were mobilized and included in sandy walls, and sands were intercalated in much compact clay walls. Irrespective of the materials used, walls showed a marked regular porosity in the range 50–60%, with the exception of secondary galleries that occasionally permeated the turret structure, which evinced lower porosity and therefore a more compact microstructure. Ants appeared to respond to local variations in the structural stability of the construction, since clay coatings smoothed and reinforced the surface of unstable sandy gallery walls. The observed building responses appear to be aimed at the maintenance of a porous yet mechanically-stable structure. The attained turret porosity may represent a compromise between high structural stability and low construction costs because of savings in material import.