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Brood sorting by ants: distributing the workload over the work-surface

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Leptothorax unifasciatus ant colonies occupy flat crevices in rocks in which their brood is kept in a single cluster. In artificial nests made from two glass plates sandwiched together, designed to mimic the general proportions of their nest sites in the field, such colonies arrange their brood in a distinct pattern. These patterns may influence the priority with which different brood are tended, and may therefore influence both the division of labour and colony demography. Different brood stages are arranged in concentric rings in a single cluster centred around the eggs and micro-larvae. Successively larger larvae are arranged in progressive bands away from the centre of the brood cluster. However, the largest and oldest brood items, the prepupae and pupae, are placed in an intermediate position between the largest and most peripheral larvae and the larvae of medium size. Dirichlet tessellations are used to analyze these patterns and show that the tile areas, the area closer to each item than its neighbours, allocated to each type of item increase with distance from the centre of the brood cluster. There is a significant positive correlation between such tile areas and the estimated metabolic rates of each type of brood item. The ants may be creating a “domain of care” around each brood item proportional to that item's needs. If nurse workers tend to move to the brood item whose tile they happen to be within when they have care to donate, they may apportion such care according to the needs of each type of brood. When colonies emigrate to new nests they rapidly recreate these characteristic brood patterns.

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Franks, N.R., Sendova-Franks, A.B. Brood sorting by ants: distributing the workload over the work-surface. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 30, 109–123 (1992).

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