The digging dynamics of ant tunnels: movement, encounters, and nest space

Abstract

Underground ant nests are constructed by decentralised self-organisation wherein the ants respond to local stimuli and produce coordinated structures through globally regulated behaviours. One such regulation is the reduction in digging effort that occurs when available nest space has reached an adequate size. Tunnels have a distinct configuration relative to other nest elements and the processes regulating their excavation are poorly understood. We examined the relationship between digging effort and tunnel space by presenting groups of 10 Acromyrmex lundi workers with either short or long tunnel spaces and demonstrated that they will dig significantly less over time in a tunnel that is already long compared to one that is short. Additionally, we provided the same treatment to groups of 100 workers and found no significant effect of length, suggesting that group size has an important impact on tunnel excavation dynamics. Automated tracking was then used to examine tunnel digging in greater detail. Groups of 10 Atta colombica ants were tracked while excavating sand in a tunnel apparatus. There was a significant correlation between mean walking speed and excavation rate. Additionally, the ants would maintain a consistent level of proximity with each other over time. This suggests that as tunnel space expands, several factors combine to lower the chance of ants encountering the tunnel digging face and taking up excavation.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8

References

  1. Bieber AGD, Marcondes A, Oliveira R, Wirth M, Tabarelli, Leal IR (2011) Do abandoned nests of leaf-cutting ants enhance plant recruitment in the Atlantic Forest?. Austral Ecol 36(2):220–232

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bouchebti S, Ferrere S, Vittori K, Latil G, Dussutour A, Forcassié V (2015) Contact rate modulates foraging efficiency in leaf-cutting ants. Sci Rep 5:18650. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep18650

    PubMed  PubMed Central  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Buhl J, Deneubourg JL, Grimal A, Theraulaz G (2005) Self-organized digging activity in ant colonies. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 58(1):9–17

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Buhl J, Gautrais J, Deneubourg JL, Theraulaz G (2004) Nest excavation in ants: group size effects on the size and structure of tunneling networks. Naturwissenschaften 91(12):602–606

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Cammeraat LH, Willot SJ, Compton SG, Incoll LD (2002) The effects of ants’ nests on the physical, chemical and hydrological properties of a rangeland soil in semi-arid Spain. Geoderma 105(1):1–20

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Cassill DL, Tschinkel WR, Vinson SB (2002) Nest complexity, group size and brood rearing in the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Insectes Soc 49(2):158–163

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Crawley MJ (2013) The R Book. Wiley, Chichester

    Google Scholar 

  8. Czaczkes TJ, Grüter C, Ratnieks FLW (2013) Negative feedback in ants: crowding results in less trail pheromone deposition. J R Soc Interface. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2012.1009

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. de Bruyn L, Conacher AJ (1990) The role of termites and ants in soil modification—a review. Aust J Soil Res 28(1):55–93

    Google Scholar 

  10. Deneubourg JL, Lioni A, Detrain C (2002) Dynamics of aggregation and emergence of cooperation. Biol Bull 202(3):262–267

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Depickère S, Fresneau D, Deneubourg JL (2004) A basis for spatial and social patterns in ant species: dynamics and mechanisms of aggregation. J Insect Behav 17(1):81–97

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Depickère S, Fresneau D, Deneubourg JL (2008) Effect of social and environmental factos on ant aggregation: a general response?. J Insect Physiol 54(9):1349–1355

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Espinoza DN, Santamarina JC (2010) Ant tunneling—a granular media perspective. Granul Matter 12(6):607–616

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Forti LC, Camargo RS, Fujihara RT, Lopes JFS (2007) The nest architecture of the ant, Pheidole oxyops, 1908 (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Insect Sci 15(5):437–442

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Franks NR, Tofts C (1994) Foraging for work: how tasks allocate workers. Anim Behav 48(2):470–472

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gordon DM (1989) Dynamics of task switching in harvester ants. Anim Behav 38(2):194–204

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Gordon DM, Mehdiabadi NJ (1999) Encounter rate and task allocation in harvester ants. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 45(5):370–377

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Gordon DM, Paul RE, Thorpe K (1993) What is the function of encounter patterns in ant colonies?. Anim Behav 45(6):1083–1100

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Gravish N, Garcia M, Mazouchova N, Levy L, Umbanhowar PB, Goodisman MA, Goldisman DI (2012) Effects of worker size on the dynamics of fire ant tunnel construction. J R Soc Interface 9(77):3312–3322

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Gravish N, Monaenkova D, Goodisman MA, Goldisman DI (2013) Climbing, falling, and jamming during ant locomotion in confined environments. PNAS 110(24):9746–9751

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Greene MJ, Gordon DM (2007) Interaction rate informs harvester ant task decisions. Behav Ecol 18(2):451–455

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Halboth F, Roces F (2017) Underground anemotactic orientation in leaf-cutting ants: perception of airflow and experience-dependent choice of airflow direction during digging. Sci Nat 104(82):9–10

    Google Scholar 

  23. Halley JD, Burd M, Wells P (2005) Excavation and architecture of Argentine ant nests. Insectes Soc 52(4):350–356

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Jeanson R, Deneubourg JL, Grimal A, Theraulaz G (2004) Modulation of individual behavor and collective decision-making during aggregation site selection by the ant Messor barbarus. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 55(4):388–394

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Jones CG, Oldroyd BP (2007) Nest thermoregulation in social insects. Adv Insect Physiol 33:153–191

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Jouquet P, Dauber J, Lagerlöf J, Lavelle P, Lepage M (2006) Soil invertebrates as ecosystem engineers: Intended and accidental effects on soil and feedback loops. Appl Soil Ecol 32(2):153–164

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Khuong A, Gautrais J, Perna A, Sbai C, Combe M, Kuntz P, Jost C, Theraulaz G (2016) Stigmergic construction and topochemical information shape ant nest architecture. PNAS 113(5):1303–1308. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1509829113

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Mikheyev AS, Tschinkel WR (2003) Nest architecture of the ant Formica pallidefulva: structure, costs and rules of excavation. Insectes Soc 51(1):30–36

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Pérez-Escudero A, Vincente-Page J, Hinz RC, Arganda S, Polavieja GG (2014) idTracker: tracking individuals in a group by automatic identification of unmarked animals. Nat Methods. https://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2994

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Pielström S (2013) On the role of local information in the spatial organization of collective nest digging in the leaf-cutting ant Atta vollenweideri. PhD, Julius-Maximilian’s University, pp 65–87

  31. Pielström S, Roces F (2012) Vibrational communication in the spatial organization of collective digging in the leaf-cutting ant Atta vollenweideri. Anim Behav 84(4):743–752

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Pielström S, Roces F (2013) Sequential soil transport and its influence on the spatial organisation of collective digging in leaf-cutting ants. PLoS One 8(2):e57040. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057040

    PubMed  PubMed Central  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Pinter-Wollman N, Bala A, Merrell A, Queirolo J, Stumpe MC, Holmes S, Gordon DM (2013) Harvester ants use interactions to regulate forager activation and availability. Anim Behav 86(1):197–207

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Pless E, Queirolo J, Pinter-Wollman N, Crow S, Allen K, Mathur MB, Gordon DM (2015) Interactions increase forager availability and activity in harvester ants. PLoS One 10(11):e0141971

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Powell S, Clark E (2004) Combat between large derived societies: a subterranean army ant established as a predator of mature leaf-cutting ant colonies. Insectes Soc 51(4):342–351

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Pratt SC (2005) Quorum sensing by encounter rates in the ant Temnothorax albipennis. Behav Ecol 16(2):488–496

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. R Development Core Team (2015) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. https://www.R-project.org/

  38. Rasse P, Deneubourg JL (2001) Dynamics of nest excavation and nest size regulation of Lasius niger (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). J Insect Behav 14(4):433–449

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Raudenbush SW, Bryk AS, Congdon R (2017) HLM 7.03 for Windows [Computer software]. Scientific Software International, Inc., Skokie, IL

    Google Scholar 

  40. Roces F, Núñez JA (1993) Information about food quality influences load-size selection in recruited leaf-cutting ants. Anim Behav 45(1):135–143

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Römer D, Roces F (2015) Available space, symbiotic fungus and colony brood influence excavation and lead to the adjustment of nest enlargement in leaf-cutting ants. Insectes Soc 62(4):401–413

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Shukla RK, Singh H, Rastogi N, Agarwal VM (2013) Impact of abundant Pheidole ant species on soil nutrients in relation to the food biology of the species. Appl Soil Ecol 71:15–23

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Sudd JH (1975) A model of digging behaviour and tunnel production in ants. Insectes Soc 22(3):225–236

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Theraulaz G, Bonabeau E, Deneubourg JL (1998) Response threshold reinforcement and division of labour in insect societies. Proc R Soc B 265(1393):327–332

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Tschinkel WR (2003) Subterranean ant nests: trace fossils past and future? Palaeogeography. Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 192(1–4):321–333

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Tschinkel WR (2004) The nest architecture of the Florida harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex badius. J Insect Sci 4(21):1–19

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Weber NA (1972) Gardening ants: the attines. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Experiment 1 was carried out at the Biocenter of the University of Würzburg, Germany, using funding from a Monash University Dean’s Scholarship. We offer special thanks to Professor Flavio Roces for providing laboratory facilities. We offer thanks to the Smithsonian Institute for access to the Barro Colorado Island research station for experiment 2. T. Czaczkes was supported by a DFG Emmy Noether group leader grant (grant number CZ 237/1–1). A. Escudero was supported by an FPU fellowship from Ministerio de Economa y Competitividad, Spain (AP2006-01666 to A.P.-E.).

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. I. Bruce.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bruce, A.I., Pérez-Escudero, A., Czaczkes, T.J. et al. The digging dynamics of ant tunnels: movement, encounters, and nest space. Insect. Soc. 66, 119–127 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00040-018-0657-0

Download citation

Keywords

  • Self-organisation
  • Tunnel excavation
  • Behavioural regulation