How resources and encounters affect the distribution of foraging activity in a seed-harvesting ant
We examined how the foraging ecology of the seed-harvesting ant Messor andrei depends upon the distribution of resources and the presence of conspecifics. Bait experiments showed that colonies can recruit to high-density patches of seeds. However, at the seasonal scale, natural resource distribution did not affect the distribution of foraging activity. We conducted the study in years of high rainfall and thus seed availability may not have been a limiting factor. Colonies always preferred to forage in areas closer to their nest, which may reduce travel time between the nest and foraging sites. On a day-to-day scale, encounters between neighboring colonies at a site increased the probability that colonies would return to forage at that site; this was true both for natural and experimental encounters. In the summer, this resulted in colonies foraging at the sites of intraspecific encounters on more days than in areas where no encounter had occurred. Encounters between colonies included fighting, and there was little overlap between the foraging areas of neighboring colonies: both results suggest that one function of encounters is to defend foraging space. The high probability of return to the site of an encounter between colonies suggests that encounters may have a second function: to indicate the presence of resources.
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