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Exposure to predators reduces collective foraging aggressiveness and eliminates its relationship with colony personality composition

Abstract

Predation is a ubiquitous threat that often plays a central role in determining community dynamics. Predators can impact prey species by directly consuming them, or indirectly causing prey to modify their behavior. Direct consumption has classically been the focus of research on predator-prey interactions, but substantial evidence now demonstrates that the indirect effects of predators on prey populations are at least as strong as, if not stronger than, direct consumption. Social animals, particularly those that live in confined colonies, rely on coordinated actions that may be vulnerable to the presence of a predator, thus impacting the society’s productivity and survival. To examine the effect of predators on the behavior of social animal societies, we observed the collective foraging of social spider colonies (Stegodyphus dumicola) when they interact with dangerous predatory ants either directly, indirectly, or both. We found that when colonies were exposed directly and indirectly to ant cues, they attacked prey with approximately 40–50% fewer spiders, and 40–90% slower than colonies that were not exposed to any predator cues. Furthermore, exposure to predatory ants disassociated the well-documented positive relationship between colony behavioral composition (proportion of bold spiders) and foraging aggressiveness (number of attackers) in S. dumicola, which is vital for colony growth. Thus, the indirect effects of predator presence may limit colony success. These results suggest that enemy presence could compromise the organizational attributes of animal societies.

Significance statement

This study demonstrates that predator presence can compromise the organizational structure of complex animal societies. Indirect cues of predators proved to be most effective at eliminating the relationship between colony personality composition and group foraging. These results suggest that colonies may only incur the foraging benefits associated with particular personality compositions in habitats where their main predator does not occur. It is true that most, if not all, animals must respond at some time to the threat of predation, and shifts in behavior are often used as a first line of defense. Therefore, given the fact that individual differences in behavior are important in determining collective outcomes in many species, we feel our findings could have implications for a broad range of social taxa.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Mr. Chunky, the rock locust, for being a model citizen to us all. Additionally, we would like to thank Christine Rice (whose favorite food is rice) for providing us with lessons on the scientific greatness of Archimedes, even though every sane person agrees that Isaac Newton was an objectively better scientist. Funding for this research was generously provided by NSF IOS grants 1352705, 1455895 to JNP, 1456010 to NPW, and NIH GM115509 to JNP and NPW.

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Correspondence to Colin M. Wright.

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Communicated by W. Hughes

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Wright, C.M., Lichtenstein, J.L.L., Montgomery, G.A. et al. Exposure to predators reduces collective foraging aggressiveness and eliminates its relationship with colony personality composition. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 71, 126 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-017-2356-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-017-2356-7

Keywords

  • Behavioral syndrome
  • Personality
  • Predation
  • Trait-mediated interaction
  • Temperament