Communication of feeding locations is widespread in social animals. Many ants use pheromone trails to guide nestmates to food sources, but trail properties and how they are used vary. The ant Pheidole oxyops retrieves prey cooperatively using multiple workers. The recruited workers are guided to the prey by a pheromone trail laid by the initial discoverer. In comparison to other ants, this trail has extreme properties. Despite being laid by just one ant, freshly laid trails are followed very accurately (84.4 % correct choices at a bifurcation), but decay in only 5–7 min. This extreme accuracy and short duration probably reflect adaptations to underlying differences in feeding ecology. In particular, P. oxyops needs to rapidly recruit nestmates to a precise location in a competitive environment. Rapid decay combined with a natural walking speed of 1.4 m/min should set an upper limit of 4 m (an 8-m round trip) on recruitment range. However, experimentally placed food items up to 8 m from the nest entrance were cooperatively retrieved. This greater range is due to the trail having a dual recruitment role. It not only recruits from the nest but also intercepts ants already outside the nest, causing them to join the trail. Seventy-five per cent of ants joining the trail then followed it towards the food item. Even when direct recruitment from the nest was prevented, this secondary recruitment action resulted in seven times as many ants locating a food source than by chance discovery and in items being moved 46 % sooner.
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We thank Dr. Paulo Nogueira-Neto for allowing us to stay and work at Fazenda Aretuzina, Dr B. Czaczkes for help with data management, and Drs. Katja Rex, Margaret Couvillon and our anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript. T.C was funded by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council doctoral studentship.
The experiments reported here comply with the current laws of the country in which they were performed. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Communicated by W. O. H. Hughes
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This video shows a foraging bout. The nest entrance is on the left; a 20 × 20 × 1-mm food item is placed about 55 cm to the right. The video begins with a scout ant, which has discovered the item and has been attempting to move it, giving up and leaving the item in the direction of the nest, laying a pheromone trail. It reaches the nest by 15 s. Ants begin to leave the nest and follow the deposited pheromone trail 2 s later. Nineteen seconds into the video, a second ant leaves the food item in the direction of the nest, also laying a pheromone trail. Forty-one seconds in, the first major workers appear. After 49 s, sufficient ants have assembled around the item to begin cooperative transport. The entire process, from the beginning of recruitment to the item reaching the nest, takes 2 min and 40 s. Parts of the transport phase are omitted for brevity (MPG 38216 kb)
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Czaczkes, T.J., Ratnieks, F.L.W. Pheromone trails in the Brazilian ant Pheidole oxyops: extreme properties and dual recruitment action. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 66, 1149–1156 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-012-1367-7
- Trail pheromones
- Foraging organisation
- Pheidole oxyops