Colony size affects collective decision-making in the ant Temnothorax albipennis
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- Dornhaus, A. & Franks, N.R. Insect. Soc. (2006) 53: 420. doi:10.1007/s00040-006-0887-4
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Social insects are well-known for their ability to achieve robust collective behaviours even when individuals have limited information. It is often assumed that such behaviours rely on very large group sizes, but many insect colonies start out with only a few workers. Here we investigate the influence of colony size on collective decision-making in the house-hunting of the ant Temnothorax albipennis. In experiments where colony size was manipulated by splitting colonies, we show that worker number has an influence on the speed with which colonies discover new nest sites, but not on the time needed to make a decision (achieve a quorum threshold) or total emigration time. This occurred because split colonies adopted a lower quorum threshold, in fact they adopted the same threshold in proportion to their size as full-size colonies. This indicates that ants may be measuring relative quorum, i.e. population in the new nest relative to that of the old nest, rather than the absolute number. Experimentally reduced colonies also seemed to gain more from experience through repeated emigrations, as they could then reduce nest discovery times to those of larger colonies. In colonies of different sizes collected from the field, total emigration time was also not correlated with colony size. However, quorum threshold was not correlated with colony size, meaning that individuals in larger colonies adopted relatively lower quorum thresholds. Since this is a different result to that from size-manipulated colonies, it strongly suggests that the differences between natural small and large colonies were not caused by worker number alone. Individual ants may have adjusted their behaviour to their colony’s size, or other factors may correlate with colony size in the field. Our study thus shows the importance of experimentally manipulating colony size if the effect of worker number on the emergence of collective behaviour is to be studied.