Hannah Page, Andrew Sweeney, Anna Pilko, and Noa Pinter-Wollman
Uncovering how and why animals explore their environment is fundamental for understanding population dynamics, the spread of invasive species, species interactions, etc. In social animals, individuals within a group can vary in their exploratory behavior, and the behavioral composition of the group can determine its collective success. Workers of the invasive Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) exhibit individual variation in exploratory behavior, which affects the colony’s collective nest selection behavior. Here, we examine the mechanisms underlying this behavioral variation in exploratory behavior and determine its implications for the ecology of this species. We first establish that individual variation in exploratory behavior is repeatable and consistent across situations. We then show a relationship between exploratory behavior and the expression of genes that have been previously linked with other behaviors in social insects. Specifically, we found a negative relationship between exploratory behavior and the expression of the foraging (Lhfor) gene. Finally, we determine how colonies allocate exploratory individuals in natural conditions. We found that ants from inside the nest are the least exploratory individuals, whereas workers on newly formed foraging trails are the most exploratory individuals. Furthermore, we found temporal differences throughout the year: in early-mid spring, when new resources emerge, workers are more exploratory than at the end of winter, potentially allowing the colony to find and exploit new resources. These findings reveal the importance of individual variation in behavior for the ecology of social animals.