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Foraging and spatiotemporal territories in the honey ant Myrmecocystus mimicus wheeler (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

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Summary

The honey ant Myrmecocystus mimicus is a scavenger, forages extensively on termites, collects floral nectar, and tends homoptera. Individual foragers of M. mimicus usually disperse in all directions when leaving the nest, but there are also groups of foragers that tend to swarm out of the nest primarily in one direction. Such massive departues are usually at irregular intervals, which may last several hours. The results of field and laboratory experiments suggest that these swarms of foragers are organized by a group recruitment process, during which recruiting scout ants lay chemical orientation trails with hindgut contents and simultaneously stimulate nestmates with a motor display and secretions from the poison gland. Usually these columns travel considerable distances (4–48 m) away from the nest, frequently interfering with the foraging activity of conspecific neighboring colonies.

To prevent a neighboring colony from access to temporal food sources or to defend spatiotemporal borders, opposing colonies engage in elaborate display tournaments. Although hundreds of ants are often involved during these tournaments almost no physical fights occur. Instead, individual ants confront each other in highly sterotyped aggressive displays, during which they walk on stilt legs while raising the gaster and head. Some of the ants even seem to inflate their gasters so that the tergites are raised and the whole gaster appears to be larger. In addition, ants involved in tournament activities are on average larger than foragers.

The dynamics of the tournament interactions were observed in several colonies over several weeks-mapping each day the locations of the tournaments, the major directions of worker routes away from the nest, and recording the general foraging activities of the colonies. The results indicate that a kind of dominance order can occur among neighboring colonies. On the other hand, often no aggressive interactions among neighboring colonies can be observed, even though the colonies are actively foraging. In those cases the masses of foragers of each colony depart in one major direction that does not bring them into conflict with the masses of foragers of a neighboring colony. This stability, however, can be disturbed by offering a new rich food source to be exploited by two neighboring colonies. This invariably leads to tournament interactions.

When a colony is considerably stronger than the other, i.e., with a much larger worker force, the tournaments end quickly and the weaker colony is raided. The foreign workers invade the nest, the queen of the resident colony is killed or dirven off, while the larvae, pupae, callow workers, and honey pot workers are carried or dragged to the nest of the raiders. From these and other observations we conclude that young M. mimicus queens are unlikely to succeed in founding a colony within approximately 3 m of a mature M. mimicus colony because they are discovered and killed, or driven off by workers of the resident colony. Within approximately 3–15 m queens are more likely to start colonies, but these incipient groups run a high risk of being raided and exterminated by the mature colony.

Although populations of M. mimicus and M. depilis tend to replace each other, there are areas where both species overlap marginally. Foraging areas and foraging habitats of both species also overlap broadly, but we never observed tournament interactions between M. mimicus and M. depilis.

The adaptive significance of the spatiotemporal territories in M. mimicus is discussed.

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Hölldobler, B. Foraging and spatiotemporal territories in the honey ant Myrmecocystus mimicus wheeler (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 9, 301–314 (1981). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00299887

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