Collective search in ants: Movement determines footprints, and footprints influence movement

Stefan Popp, Anna Dornhaus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Collectively searching animals might be expected to coordinate with their groupmates to cover ground more evenly or efficiently than uncoordinated groups. Communication can lead to coordination in many ways. Previous work in ants suggests that chemical ‘footprints’, left behind by individuals as they walk, might serve this function by modulating the movement patterns of following ants. Here, we test this hypothesis by considering the two predictions that, first, ants may turn away from sites with higher footprint concentrations (klinotaxis), or, second, that they may change their turning patterns depending on the presence of footprints (klinokinesis). We tracked 5 whole colonies of Temnothorax rugatulus ants in a large arena over 5h. We approximated the footprint concentration by summing ant visitations for each point in the arena and calculated the speed and local path straightness for each point of the ant trajectories. We counterintuitively find that ants walk slightly faster and straighter in areas with fewer footprints. This is partially explained by the effect that ants who start out from the nest walking straighter move on average further away from the nest, where there are naturally fewer footprints, leading to an apparent relationship between footprint density and straightness However, ants walk slightly faster and straighter off footprints even when controlling for this effect. We tested for klinotaxis by calculating the footprint concentrations perceived by the left and right antennae of ants and found no evidence for a turning-away (nor turning-towards) behavior. Instead, we found noticeable effects of environmental idiosyncrasies on the behavior of ants which are likely to overpower any reactions to pheromones. Our results indicate that search density around an ant colony is affected by several independent processes, including individual differences in movement pattern, local spatial heterogeneities, and ants’ reactions to chemical footprints. The multitude of effects illustrates that non-communicative coordination, individual biases and interactions with the environment might have a greater impact on group search efficiency and exploratory movements than pheromone communication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0299432
JournalPloS one
Issue number4 4
StatePublished - Apr 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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