Choice of nest site protects army ant colonies from environmental extremes in tropical montane forest

Research paper by T. W. Soare, S. I. Tully, S. K. Willson, D. J. C. Kronauer, S. O’Donnell

Indexed on: 05 Dec '10Published on: 05 Dec '10Published in: Insectes sociaux


Unlike most social insects, Eciton burchellii army ants cannot thermoregulate through nest construction. Instead, army ants thermoregulate behaviorally by creating a living nest (bivouac), shifting its position and structure, and potentially through nest site selection. We hypothesized that bivouac site selection is critical to E. burchellii colony survival. We predicted elevation above sea level, with associated variation in local abiotic environments, would affect bivouac site selection by E. burchellii colonies. We also expected nest sites to buffer against ambient variation in abiotic conditions. We recorded bivouac site choice by E. burchellii colonies at sites ranging from lowland wet forests to montane forests and reviewed previously published data. We measured microclimatic variables associated with nest sites in high-elevation montane forests: temperature, relative humidity, and light levels. Bivouac site selection varied with elevation: as elevation increased, fewer bivouac sites were exposed, more were underground, and fewer were elevated (in trees). High-elevation bivouac sites moderated diurnal temperature variation and had higher relative humidity levels and lower light levels than ambient conditions. The buffering of ambient temperature and humidity decreased with elevation in montane forests, suggesting that abiotic extremes in bivouac sites at the highest elevations may contribute to the upper elevational range limits of E. burchellii.