Ant colony nest networks adapt to resource disruption

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1. Animal social structure is shaped by environmental conditions, such as food availability. This is important as conditions are likely to change in the future and changes to social structure can have cascading ecological effects. Wood ants are a useful taxon for the study of the relationship between social structure and environmental conditions, as some populations form large nest networks and they are ecologically dominant in many northern hemisphere woodlands. Nest networks are formed when a colony inhabits more than one nest, known as polydomy. Polydomous colonies are composed of distinct sub-colonies that inhabit spatially distinct nests and that share resources with each other.
2. In this study, we performed a controlled experiment on ten polydomous wood ant (Formica lugubris) colonies to test how changing the resource environment affects the social structure of a polydomous colony. We took network maps of all colonies for five years before the experiment to assess how the networks changes under natural conditions. After this period, we prevented ants from accessing an important food source for a year in five colonies and left the other five colonies undisturbed.
4. We found that preventing access to an important food source causes polydomous wood ant colony networks to fragment into smaller components and begin foraging on previously unused food sources. These changes were not associated with a reduction in the growth of populations inhabiting individual nests (sub-colonies), foundation of new nests or survival, when compared with control colonies.
5. Colony splitting likely occurred as the availability of food in each nest changed causing sub-colonies to change their inter-nest connections. Consequently, our results demonstrate that polydomous colonies can adjust to environmental changes by altering their social network.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143-152
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date6 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2020 The Authors.


  • foraging
  • resource change
  • networks
  • network dynamics
  • network manipulation
  • network analysis
  • transportation networks
  • ants
  • social insects
  • forestry
  • woodland management

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