Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 58, Issue 1, pp 9–17 | Cite as

Self-organized digging activity in ant colonies

  • Jérôme Buhl
  • Jean Louis Deneubourg
  • Anne Grimal
  • Guy Theraulaz
Original Article


Many ant species adjust the volume of their underground nest to the colony size. We studied whether the regulation of the volume of excavated sand could result from an interplay between recruitment processes and ant density. Experiments were performed with different group sizes of workers in the ant Messor sancta. When presented with a thin homogeneous sand disk, these groups excavated networks of galleries in less than 3 days. The excavation dynamics were logistic shaped, which suggests the existence of a double feedback system: a positive one resulting in an initial exponential growth phase, and a negative one leading the dynamics to a saturation phase. The total volume of excavated sand was almost proportional to the number of workers. We then developed a model in which we incorporated the quantitative behavioral rules of the workers’ digging activity. A positive feedback was introduced in the form of a recruitment process mediated by pheromones. The model predicts that the excavation dynamics should be logistic shaped and the excavation should almost stop despite the absence of any explicit negative feedback. Moreover, the model was able to reproduce the positive linear relationship between nest volume and colony size.


Self-organization Digging behavior Colony size Nest size regulation Messor sancta 



We thank J. Gautrais for his precious advice and programming assistance, and C. Jost, V. Fourcassié, R. Jeanson, J. Le Breton and P. Rasse for many helpful discussions and suggestions. J. Buhl was supported by a doctoral grant from the French Ministry of Scientific Research. J.L. Deneubourg is a research associate of the Belgian National Foundation for Scientific Research. This work was partly supported by the Programme Cognitique from the French Ministry of Scientific Research. Our research complies with the current laws and regulations in France.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jérôme Buhl
    • 1
  • Jean Louis Deneubourg
    • 2
  • Anne Grimal
    • 1
  • Guy Theraulaz
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition Animale, CNRSUniversité Paul SabatierToulouse Cedex 4France
  2. 2.CENOLI, CP 231Université Libre de BruxellesBrusselsBelgium

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