Ontogenetic changes in social behaviour in the forest tent caterpillar, Malacosoma disstria
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Many animals, including gregarious caterpillars, begin life in groups and become increasingly solitary as they grow larger. These ontogenetic changes in social behaviour suggest that the costs and benefits of grouping change with increasing individual size. Forest tent caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria) colonies exhibit complex social behaviour during the early larval instars, using pheromone trails to move together between temporary bivouacs and feeding sites, and break up as the caterpillars grow. We demonstrate changes in individual responses to cues from conspecifics that explain changes in aggregation during caterpillar development. We used Markov chain analysis to test the influence of pheromone trails and colony-mates on an individual caterpillar’s tendency to switch between quiescence, searching, walking and spinning. Pheromone-laden silk trails increased the tendency to begin locomotion, whereas colony-mates increased switching from activity to quiescence. Trails also influenced the form taken by locomotor behaviour, and promoted directed walking over searching. Social cues thus increase the efficiency of individual locomotion. Younger larvae were more quiescent and more reluctant to walk in the absence of trails than were older insects. An increase in independent locomotion as the larvae grow provides a mechanism to explain colony break-up and points to an ontogenetic shift in the internal processes driving behaviour. Scaling relationships suggest that many of the benefits associated with group-living in caterpillars decrease as individuals grow larger, providing an adaptive explanation for observed ontogenetic changes in social behaviour.