Dissertation: Behavioral and Nutritional Regulation of Colony Growth in the Desert Leafcutter Ant, Acromyrmex versicolor

Rebecca Clark

Like individual organisms, complex social groups are able to maintain predictable trajectories of growth, from initial colony foundation to mature reproductively capable units. They do so while simultaneously responding flexibly to variation in nutrient availability and intake. Leafcutter ant colonies function as tri-trophic systems, in which the ants harvest vegetation to grow a fungus that, in turn, serves as food for the colony. Fungal growth rates and colony worker production are interdependent, regulated by nutritional and behavioral feedbacks. Fungal growth and quality are directly affected by worker foraging decisions, while worker production is, in turn, dependent on the amount and condition of the fungus. In this dissertation, I first characterized the growth relationship between the workers and the fungus of the desert leafcutter ant Acromyrmex versicolor during early stages of colony development, from colony foundation by groups of queens through the beginnings of exponential growth. I found that this relationship undergoes a period of slow growth and instability when workers first emerge, and then becomes allometrically positive. I then evaluated how mass and element ratios of resources collected by the ants are translated into fungus and worker population growth, and refuse, finding that colony digestive efficiency is comparable to digestive efficiencies of other herbivorous insects and ruminants. To test how colonies behaviorally respond to perturbations of the fungus garden, I quantified activity levels and task performance of workers in colonies with either supplemented or diminished fungus gardens, and found that colonies adjusted activity and task allocation in response to the fungus garden size. Finally, to identify possible forms of nutrient limitation, I measured how colony performance was affected by changes in the relative amounts of carbohydrates, protein, and phosphorus available in the resources used to grow the fungus garden. From this experiment, I concluded that colony growth is primarily carbohydrate-limited.

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