Individual and collective decision-making during nest site selection by the ant Leptothorax albipennis
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Social insect colonies possess remarkable abilities to select the best among several courses of action. In populous societies with highly efficient recruitment behaviour, decision-making is distributed across many individuals, each acting on limited local information with appropriate decision rules. To investigate the degree to which small societies with less efficient recruitment can also employ distributed decision-making, we studied nest site selection in Leptothorax albipennis. Colonies were found to make sophisticated choices, taking into account not only the intrinsic qualities of each site, but also its value relative to the available options. In choices between two sites, individual ants were able to visit both sites, compare them and choose the better one. However, most ants encountered only one site in the course of an emigration. These poorly informed ants also contributed to the colony's decision, because their probability of initiating recruitment to a site depended on its quality. This led to shorter latencies between discovery and recruitment to a superior site, and so created greater amplification via positive feedback of the population at the better site. In short, these small colonies make use of a distributed mechanism of information processing, but also take advantage of direct decision-making by well-informed individuals. The latter feature may in part stem from the limitations of their social structure, but may also reflect the stringent demand for unanimous decisions by house-hunting colonies of any size.
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