Energetics of trail clearing in the leaf-cutter ant Atta

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Few ant species construct cleared trails. Among those that do, leaf-cutting Atta ants build the most prominent networks, with single colonies clearing debris and obstructions from hundreds of meters of trails annually. Workers on cleared paths move at higher speed than they do over uncleared litter, and one measurement of the time and energetic costs of trail clearance suggests that benefits of trail usage far outweigh the investment costs of trail clearing. The ecological basis of trail clearing remains uncertain, however, because no full account has been made of benefits and costs in common units that allow comparison. We make such an account using a scalable, integrative model of trail investment and foraging energetics. Contrary to assumptions in previous work, we find that trail clearing needs not always be energetically profitable for leaf cutting ants. Profitability depends on the workforce composition, specifically, on how many ants in a traffic stream act as maintenance workforce to respond to sudden and unpredictable obstructions, such as leaf fall. Such maintenance patrols have not previously been recognized as a cost of trail building. If the patrolling workforce is not too large, the energetic savings from foraging over cleared trails offset the investment and maintenance costs within a few days. Under some conditions, however, amortization can take weeks or months, or trail clearing can become unprofitable altogether. This suggests that Atta colonies must have a mechanism to regulate the intensity of their trail clearing behavior. We explore possible mechanisms and make testable predictions for future research.
Original languageEnglish
Article number14
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


  • Cleared trails
  • Trunk trails
  • Leaf-cutter ants
  • Atta
  • Cost/benefit model
  • Unladenworkers

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