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Dynamic matching of forager size to resources in the continuously polymorphic leaf-cutter ant, Atta colombica (Hymenoptera, Formicidae)

Ecological entomology 2006 v.31 no.6 pp. 629-635
Atta colombica, harvesting, insect colonies, learning, resource allocation, social insects
1. Ergonomic optimisation theory proposes that by increasing variation in worker morphology, social insect colonies may increase their dietary breadth; however, little is known about how this relationship operates at the colony level. This study examines the colony-level pattern of forager size allocation to resource sites in a natural setting. 2. Using a biologically relevant measure of toughness, it is shown that leaf-cutter ant colonies exploit a variety of plant resources that vary significantly in toughness at any given time. 3. Forager size is shown to be matched to the toughness of plant material, with larger ants harvesting tougher material. 4. Furthermore, outbound foragers travelling to a harvest site are matched in size to the toughness of plant material contained within the site and are not a random selection of available foragers. The match between forager size and plant toughness may reduce the number of wasted trips and ill-matched foragers. 5. The observed colony-level pattern of forager allocation could be the result of learning by individual foragers, or the result of information shared at the colony level.