Cooperative transport by the ant Novomessor cockerelli


While most ant species carry burdens solitarily, a few have evolved impressive skills at cooperative transport that are important to their ecological success. We examined one of these species, Novomessor cockerelli, with the goals of better understanding how transport groups are coordinated and how cooperation influences the efficiency of load transport. Ants were induced to carry standard artificial loads over a smooth horizontal surface, both in groups and as solitary individuals. Porters in groups were non-randomly distributed around the load, with most pulling from the front while walking backward. Porters were more persistent at the leading edge than at the rear, where high rates of leaving and joining were observed. Solitary porters also pulled the load, but they usually first attempted to walk forward and push, until their interactions with the unwieldy load rotated them into a pulling position. Cooperative transport entailed a loss of efficiency, in that solitary porters moved faster and on straighter paths than groups, even though carrying the same per capita weight. This led to a higher prey delivery rate for individuals than for groups. These findings contradict earlier claims of ‘superefficient’ transport for this species, but are consistent with the overall pattern across the ants, in which only a few swarm-raiding species show higher transport efficiency by groups than individuals. We interpret cooperative transport by N. cockerelli and many other species as the product of selection for competitor avoidance, in contrast to swarm raiders, where the special need for efficient prey retrieval has shaped distinctive transport tactics.

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This research was supported by the United States Office of Naval Research (Award N00014-08-1-0696) and the United States National Science Foundation (Award CCF-1012029). AB was supported by the Wallonie-Bruxelles International and the Belgian American Education Foundation.

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Correspondence to S. C. Pratt.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Online resource 1: Video of a group of N. cockerelli ants carrying a 2.4 g artificial standard load made of a dime attached to a foam disk (MOV 221273 kb)

Online resource 2: Video of a single N. cockerelli ant carrying an artificial standard load consisting of a 0.3 g piece of solder (MOV 283446 kb)

Online resource 1: Video of a group of N. cockerelli ants carrying a 2.4 g artificial standard load made of a dime attached to a foam disk (MOV 221273 kb)

Online resource 2: Video of a single N. cockerelli ant carrying an artificial standard load consisting of a 0.3 g piece of solder (MOV 283446 kb)

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Buffin, A., Pratt, S.C. Cooperative transport by the ant Novomessor cockerelli . Insect. Soc. 63, 429–438 (2016).

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  • Ants
  • Collective behaviour
  • Cooperative transport
  • Foraging behaviour
  • Decentralized coordination