How Collective Comparisons Emerge Without Individual Comparisons of the Options

Proc Biol Sci. 2014 Jul 22;281(1787):20140737. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0737. Epub 2014 Jun 11.


Collective decisions in animal groups emerge from the actions of individuals who are unlikely to have global information. Comparative assessment of options can be valuable in decision-making. Ant colonies are excellent collective decision-makers, for example when selecting a new nest-site. Here, we test the dependency of this cooperative process on comparisons conducted by individual ants. We presented ant colonies with a choice between new nests: one good and one poor. Using individually radio-tagged ants and an automated system of doors, we manipulated individual-level access to information: ants visiting the good nest were barred from visiting the poor one and vice versa. Thus, no ant could individually compare the available options. Despite this, colonies still emigrated quickly and accurately when comparisons were prevented. Individual-level rules facilitated this behavioural robustness: ants allowed to experience only the poor nest subsequently searched more. Intriguingly, some ants appeared particularly discriminating across emigrations under both treatments, suggesting they had stable, high nest acceptance thresholds. Overall, our results show how a colony of ants, as a cognitive entity, can compare two options that are not both accessible by any individual ant. Our findings illustrate a collective decision process that is robust to differences in individual access to information.

Keywords: RFID; collective decisions; comparative evaluation; decision-making; emigration; social insects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication
  • Animals
  • Ants / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior
  • Decision Making
  • Nesting Behavior*