University of York TRANSIT Interdisciplinary Seminar Series (funded by EPSRC)
Seminar given by Elva Robinson, School of Biological Sciences, Bristol
Ant colonies have been used as model systems for the study of self-organisation. Viewing ants as identical agents following simple rules has led to many insights into the emergence of complex behaviours. However, real biological ants are far from identical in behaviour. Advances in radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology have allowed for the first time automatic monitoring of whole ant colonies at the individual level. This technology has provided new insights into the role of the individual within the colony. We have applied this novel technique to two decisions highly important for colony survival. Firstly, we investigated what factors affect an individual's decision of whether or not to leave the safety of the nest to perform the risky task of foraging. Secondly, we investigated colony nest-site choice, and how the actions of individuals influence this colony-level decision. In both cases we find that a small minority of ants are highly active. Our data strongly suggest that this minority of influential individuals have a disproportionate effect on colony function. Our investigations indicate that the role of highly active individuals may have been underestimated in past studies of ant organization, and that addressing the causes and effects of this variability will advance our understanding of these highly successful complex adaptive systems.