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Collective decision making in a heterogeneous environment: Lasius niger colonies preferentially forage at easy to learn locations
Many ants forage in complex environments and use a combination of trail pheromone information and route memory to navigate between food sources and the nest. Previous research has shown that foraging routes differ in how easily they are learned. In particular, it is easier to learn feeding locations that are reached by repeating (e.g. left-left or right-right) than alternating choices (left-right or right-left) along a route with two T-bifurcations. This raises the hypothesis that the learnability of the feeding sites may influence overall colony foraging patterns. We studied this in the mass-recruiting ant Lasius niger. We used mazes with two T-bifurcations, and allowed colonies to exploit two equidistant food sources that differed in how easily their locations were learned. In experiment 1, learnability was manipulated by using repeating versus alternating routes from nest to feeder. In experiment 2, we added visual landmarks along the route to one food source. Our results suggest that colonies preferentially exploited the feeding site that was easier to learn. This was the case even if the more difficult to learn feeding site was discovered first. Furthermore, we show that these preferences were at least partly caused by lower error rates (experiment 1) and greater foraging speeds (experiment 2) of foragers visiting the more easily learned feeder locations. Our results indicate that the learnability of feeding sites is an important factor influencing collective foraging patterns of ant colonies under more natural conditions, given that in natural environments foragers often face multiple bifurcations on their way to food sources.
ants, collective decision making, foraging, pheromone, route learning
Web of science
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