Superorganism Personalities in Ant Colonies

Superorganism Personalities in Ant Colonies

Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis

Superorganisms are collective social units of organized individual animals in which each particular organism plays a cooperative role in the greater functioning of a species community. Many insects act according to this system of regulated, synergistic behavior, such as bees or ants, to maintain the overall wellbeing of their colonies. For example, distinct bee species have been found to have more resilient immunity due to young workers’ susceptibility to mite infections, acting as willing martyrs for the colony’s survival.

Ant colonies in particular form symbiotic relationships with other plant species such as the accacia tree which provides food and nesting space in exchange for protection from pathogens provided by the ants. Similarly, a species of Central and South American arboreal ant, Azteca constructor, benefits from these same provisions and acts as a patrol for threats to leaf damage caused by invading insects and animals to the neotropical tree Cecropia. What is even more astounding than this harmonious, biological relationship is the new research that suggests that this particular ant superorganism may possess a personality. Scientists measured colonies’ personality types based on a spectrum of five behaviors including: “patrolling behavior, vibrational disturbance, response to intruder, response to leaf damage, and exploratory tendency.” The study published in Behavioral Ecology found that colonies exhibiting more aggressive behavior seemed to have more thriving trees with less foliage damage. A lingering question is who influences who: “Colony behavior and plant health may influence each other in a feedback loop; aggressive colonies help prevent leaf damage and are rewarded with more food bodies, making them even better equipped to defend their host plant, whereas less aggressive colonies permit more defoliation and suffer lower resource availability.”