Towards a general life-history model of the superorganism: predicting the survival, growth and reproduction of ant societies

Jonathan Z. Shik, Chen Hou, Adam Kay, Michael Kaspari, James F. Gillooly

Abstract

Social insect societies dominate many terrestrial ecosystems across the planet. Colony members cooperate to capture and use resources to maximize survival and reproduction. Yet, when compared with solitary organisms, we understand relatively little about the factors responsible for differences in the rates of survival, growth and reproduction among colonies. To explain these differences, we present a mathematical model that predicts these three rates for ant colonies based on the body sizes and metabolic rates of colony members. Specifically, the model predicts that smaller colonies tend to use more energy per gram of biomass, live faster and die younger. Model predictions are supported with data from whole colonies for a diversity of species, with much of the variation in colony-level life history explained based on physiological traits of individual ants. The theory and data presented here provide a first step towards a more general theory of colony life history that applies across species and environments.

Footnotes

    • Received May 14, 2012.
    • Accepted July 25, 2012.
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