Internest food sharing within wood ant colonies: resource redistribution behavior in a complex system

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Resource sharing is an important cooperative behavior in many animals. Sharing resources is particularly important in social insect societies, as division of labor often results in most individuals including, importantly, the reproductives, relying on other members of the colony to provide resources. Sharing resources between individuals is therefore fundamental to the success of social insects. Resource sharing is complicated if a colony inhabits several spatially separated nests, a nesting strategy common in many ant species. Resources must be shared not only between individuals in a single nest but also between nests. We investigated the behaviors facilitating resource redistribution between nests in a dispersed-nesting population of wood ant Formica lugubris. We marked ants, in the field, as they transported resources along the trails between nests of a colony, to investigate how the behavior of individual workers relates to colony-level resource exchange. We found that workers from a particular nest “forage” to other nests in the colony, treating them as food sources. Workers treating other nests as food sources means that simple, pre-existing foraging behaviors are used to move resources through a distributed system. It may be that this simple behavioral mechanism facilitates the evolution of this complex life-history strategy.

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