Quorum sensing, recruitment, and collective decision-making during colony emigration by the ant Leptothorax albipennis
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When its nest is damaged, a colony of the ant Leptothorax albipennis skillfully emigrates to the best available new site. We investigated how this ability emerges from the behaviors used by ants to recruit nestmates to potential homes. We found that, in a given emigration, only one-third of the colony's workers ever recruit. At first, they summon fellow recruiters via tandem runs, in which a single follower is physically led all the way to the new site. They later switch to recruiting the passive majority of the colony via transports, in which nestmates are simply carried to the site. After this switch, tandem runs continue sporadically but now run in the opposite direction, leading recruiters back to the old nest. Recruitment accelerates with the start of transport, which proceeds at a rate 3 times greater than that of tandem runs. The recruitment switch is triggered by population increase at the new site, such that ants lead tandem runs when the site is relatively empty, but change to transport once a quorum of nestmates is present. A model shows that the quorum requirement can help a colony choose the best available site, even when few ants have the opportunity to compare sites directly, because recruiters to a given site launch the rapid transport of the bulk of the colony only if enough active ants have been "convinced" of the worth of the site. This exemplifies how insect societies can achieve adaptive colony-level behaviors from the decentralized interactions of relatively poorly informed insects, each combining her own limited direct information with indirect cues about the experience of her nestmates.
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