The effect of individual variation on the structure and function of interaction networks in harvester ants

Noa Pinter-Wollman, Roy Wollman, Adam Guetz, Susan Holmes, Deborah M. Gordon

Abstract

Social insects exhibit coordinated behaviour without central control. Local interactions among individuals determine their behaviour and regulate the activity of the colony. Harvester ants are recruited for outside work, using networks of brief antennal contacts, in the nest chamber closest to the nest exit: the entrance chamber. Here, we combine empirical observations, image analysis and computer simulations to investigate the structure and function of the interaction network in the entrance chamber. Ant interactions were distributed heterogeneously in the chamber, with an interaction hot-spot at the entrance leading further into the nest. The distribution of the total interactions per ant followed a right-skewed distribution, indicating the presence of highly connected individuals. Numbers of ant encounters observed positively correlated with the duration of observation. Individuals varied in interaction frequency, even after accounting for the duration of observation. An ant's interaction frequency was explained by its path shape and location within the entrance chamber. Computer simulations demonstrate that variation among individuals in connectivity accelerates information flow to an extent equivalent to an increase in the total number of interactions. Individual variation in connectivity, arising from variation among ants in location and spatial behaviour, creates interaction centres, which may expedite information flow.

  • Received January 31, 2011.
  • Accepted March 22, 2011.
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