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Polymorphism and Division of Labor During Foraging Cycles in the Leaf-cutting Ant Acromyrmex octospinosus (Formicidae; Attini)

Muscedere, Mario L., Berglund, Jennifer L., Traniello, James F. A.
Journal of insect behavior 2011 v.24 no.2 pp. 94-105
Acromyrmex octospinosus, ant nests, environmental factors, forage, foraging, gardens, head, insect behavior, leaf-cutting ants, leaves, polyethism, rain
While division of labor within leaf-cutting ant nests has been well-characterized in the context of the collection and processing of leaf material, environmental factors such as day-night cycles and heavy rainfall limit the time during which leaf-cutting ant workers leave the nest to gather forage. Using a novel “flat panel” nest design, we studied how patterns of within-nest task performance changed when a colony of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex octospinosus was and was not provided access to forage. We conducted scan samples of individuals working within the nest under both conditions and compared task allocation patterns across provisioning regimes and between workers of different sizes. When labor was compared between worker size groups, “minor” workers (head width ≤2.0 mm) and “major” workers (head width >2.0 mm) showed significantly different task performance patterns when forage was available: minors performed mostly brood-care and garden maintenance, while majors were mostly involved in the handling of freshly-cut leaf fragments. In contrast, when the colony was deprived of forage, the task performance patterns of minor and major workers converged and did not significantly differ. Marked major workers known to be foragers tended to remain idle within the nest when the colony was deprived of forage, while non-foragers of similar head width engaged in a variety of within-nest tasks, suggesting polyethism in majors may be based on factors other than size.