Individual learning performance and exploratory activity are linked to colony foraging success in a mass-recruiting ant

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Learning plays an important role in the life of many animals. In social insects, colony foraging success depends on the combined actions of many individuals and learning contributes to individual foraging success. In many ants, for example, route learning helps foragers to navigate between the nest and a food source. Here, we studied if the foraging success of a colony depends on the route-learning performance of its individuals. We used a doubly bifurcating T-maze to assess the route-learning performance of ants from 12 Lasius niger colonies. We also measured the propensity of workers to deposit trail pheromone and to explore the surrounding of their nest. We then tested colony foraging performance in a complex maze, set up either as a poor environment (one food source at the end of one tip), or a rich environment (a food source at the end of each tip). We found that individual learning performance was linked to colony foraging success in the rich, but not the poor environment. The propensity of individual ants to lay pheromone correlated negatively with their learning performance and only predicted colony foraging success in colonies with poor learning abilities in a rich environment. The strongest predictor of colony foraging success was exploratory activity, which differed consistently between colonies. Our results suggest that the importance of individual learning for colony foraging success depends on the environment and that explorative activity is an important factor for colony foraging success.

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