Ants Have Many Standards

Perhaps the most widely-appreciated characteristic of ant colonies is their propensity for collective decision-making. How does a colony, with behavioral variation across individuals, optimize their collective choices? Thomas O’Shea-Wheller and colleagues at the University of Bristol decided to find out. What they discovered may surprise you.

Temnothorax ants doing their thing. Photo: Alex Wild

In short, their first finding is that individual ants in the species Temnothorax albipennis tend to spend more time in nests of higher quality. This is not too shocking. But they also found great variation in this behavior throughout this trend, such that “some ants are always satisfied with a nest, while others almost never are”. And not only did Shea-Wheller and colleagues find significant variation, but they also show, through modeling, that this variation may ultimately produce better collective choices. In particular, when colonies had to choose between relatively mediocre nest sites, heterogeneity in pickiness led to more accurate nest site choices. It seems that behavioral diversity in T. albipennis ants is maintained for the good of the colony – different strokes for different folks ants.

This work is yet another rock in the mountain of evidence showing that ants are full of surprises!