Infrastructure construction without information exchange: the trail clearing mechanism in Atta leafcutter ants

Thomas Bochynek, Martin Burd, Christoph Kleineidam, Bernd Meyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


A wide range of group-living animals construct tangible infrastructure networks, often of remarkable size and complexity. In ant colonies, infrastructure construction may require tens of thousands of work hours distributed among many thousand individuals. What are the individual behaviours involved in the construction and what level of complexity in inter-individual interaction is required to organize this effort? We investigate this question in one of the most sophisticated trail builders in the animal world: the leafcutter ants, which remove leaf litter, cut through overhangs and shift soil to level the path of trail networks that may cumulatively extend for kilometres. Based on obstruction experiments in the field and the laboratory, we identify and quantify different individual trail clearing behaviours. Via a computational model, we further investigate the presence of recruitment, which-through direct or indirect information transfer between individuals-is one of the main organizing mechanisms of many collective behaviours in ants. We show that large-scale transport networks can emerge purely from the stochastic process of workers encountering obstructions and subsequently engaging in removal behaviour with a fixed probability. In addition to such incidental removal, we describe a dedicated clearing behaviour in which workers remove additional obstructions independent of chance encounters. We show that to explain the dynamics observed in the experiments, no information exchange (e.g. via recruitment) is required, and propose that large-scale infrastructure construction of this type can be achieved without coordination between individuals.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20182539
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1895
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jan 2019


  • Atta
  • Cleared trails
  • Collective construction
  • Foraging infrastructure
  • Leafcutter ants
  • Trail clearing

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