Morphogenesis of an extended phenotype: four-dimensional ant nest architecture

Nicholas J. Minter, Nigel R. Franks, Katharine A. Robson Brown


Animals produce a variety of structures to modify their environments adaptively. Such structures represent extended phenotypes whose development is rarely studied. To begin to rectify this, we used micro-computed tomography (CT) scanning and time-series experiments to obtain the first high-resolution dataset on the four-dimensional growth of ant nests. We show that extrinsic features within the environment, such as the presence of planes between layers of sediment, influence the architecture of Lasius flavus nests, with ants excavating horizontal tunnels along such planes. Intrinsically, the dimensions of the tunnels are associated with individual colonies, the dynamics of excavation can be explained by negative feedback and the angular distribution of tunnels is probably a result of local competition among tunnels for miners. The architecture and dynamics of ant nest excavation therefore result from local interactions of ants with one another and templates inherent in the environment. The influence of the environment on the form of structures has been documented across both biotic and abiotic domains. Our study opens up the utility of CT scanning as a technique for observing the morphogenesis of such structures.

  • Received June 13, 2011.
  • Accepted July 26, 2011.
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