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A field assessment of optimal foraging in ants: trail patterns and seed retrieval by the European harvester ant Messor barbarus

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The ant Messor barbarus is a major seed predator on annual grasslands of the Mediterranean area. This paper is an attempt to relate the foraging ecology of this species to resource availability and to address several predictions of optimal foraging theory under natural conditions of seed harvesting.¶Spatial patterns of foraging trails tended to maximise acquisition of food resources, as trails led the ants to areas where seeds were more abundant locally. Moreover, harvesting activity concentrated on highly frequented trails, on which seeds were brought into the nest in larger numbers and more efficiently, at a higher mean rate per worker.¶The predictions of optimal foraging theory that ants should be more selective in both more resource-rich and more distant patches were tested in the native seed background. We confirm that selectivity of ants is positively related to trail length and thus to distance from the nest of foraged seeds. Conversely, we fail to find a consistent relationship between selectivity and density or species diversity of seed patches. We discuss how selectivity assessed at the colony level may depend on factors other than hitherto reported behavioural changes in seed choice by individual foragers.

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Received 23 March 1999; revised 17 June 1999; accepted 30 July 1999.

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Detrain, C., Tasse, O., Versaen, M. et al. A field assessment of optimal foraging in ants: trail patterns and seed retrieval by the European harvester ant Messor barbarus. Insectes soc. 47, 56–62 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1007/s000400050009

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  • Key words: Optimal foraging, harvester ants, trail, distance, seed abundance.