Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 66, Issue 10, pp 1407–1420 | Cite as

How is activity distributed among and within tasks in Temnothorax ants?

  • Noa Pinter-WollmanEmail author
  • Julia Hubler
  • Jo-Anne Holley
  • Nigel R. Franks
  • Anna Dornhaus
Original Paper


How social insect colonies behave results from the actions of their workers. Individual variation among workers in their response to various tasks is necessary for the division of labor within colonies. A worker may be active in only a subset of tasks (specialist), perform all tasks (elite), or exhibit no particular pattern of task activity (idiosyncratic). Here we examine how worker activity is distributed among and within tasks in ants of the genus Temnothorax. We found that workers exhibited elitism within a situation, i.e., in particular sets of tasks, such as those associated with emigrations, nest building, or foraging. However, there was weak specialization for working in a particular situation. A few workers exhibited elitism across all situations, i.e., high performance in all tasks in all situations. Within any particular task, the distribution of activity among workers was skewed, with few ants performing most of the work and most ants performing very little of the work. We further found that workers persisted in their task preference over days, with the same individuals performing most of the work day after day. Interestingly, colonies were robust to the removal of these highly active workers; they were replaced by other individuals that were previously less active. This replacement was not short-lived; when the removed individuals were returned to the colony, not all of them resumed their prior high activity levels, and not all the workers that replaced them reduced their activity. Thus, even though some workers specialize in tasks within a particular situation and are persistent in performing them, task allocation in a colony is plastic and colonies can withstand removal of highly active individuals.


Division of labor Individual variation Response threshold Social organization Task allocation Temnothorax 



The authors would like to thank members of the Social Insect Lab at the UA for feedback on the manuscript. We also thank the NSF (grants nos. IOS-1045239 and IOS-0841756 to AD), the DFG (Emmy Nöther fellowship to AD), and the BBSRC (grant E19832 to NRF) for funding.

Supplementary material

265_2012_1396_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (574 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 574 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Noa Pinter-Wollman
    • 1
    • 4
    Email author
  • Julia Hubler
    • 2
  • Jo-Anne Holley
    • 2
    • 5
  • Nigel R. Franks
    • 3
  • Anna Dornhaus
    • 2
  1. 1.Program in Human Biology and Department of BiologyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecology & Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  3. 3.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of BristolBristolUK
  4. 4.BioCircuits InstituteUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  5. 5.Department of EntomologyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA

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