Indexed on: 28 Jul '13Published on: 28 Jul '13Published in: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Many organisms live in crowded groups where social density affects behavior and fitness. Social insects inhabit nests that contain many individuals where physical interactions facilitate information flow and organize collective behaviors such as foraging, colony defense, and nest emigration. Changes in nest space and intranidal crowding can alter social interactions and affect worker behavior. Here, I examined the effects of social density on foraging, scouting, and polydomy behavior in ant colonies—using the species Temnothorax rugatulus. First, I analyzed field colonies and determined that nest area scaled isometrically with colony mass—this indicates that nest area changes proportionally with colony size and suggests that ants actively control intranidal density. Second, laboratory experiments showed that colonies maintained under crowded conditions had greater foraging and scouting activities compared to the same colonies maintained at a lower density. Moreover, crowded colonies were significantly more likely to become polydomous. Polydomous colonies divided evenly based on mass between two nests but distributed fewer, heavier workers and brood to the new nests. Polydomous colonies also showed different foraging and scouting rates compared to the same colonies under monodomous conditions. Combined, the results indicate that social density is an important colony phenotype that affects individual and collective behavior in ants. I discuss the function of social density in affecting communication and the organization of labor in social insects and hypothesize that the collective management of social density is a group level adaptation in social insects.