Biology/Animal Behaviour, Arizona State University
I am an Animal Behavior PhD candidate at Arizona State University in the USA, where I study animal communication. I am particularly interested in how animals in large societies coordinate over long distances, and I use ant colonies as natural models for studying this question. In many ant colonies, it is beneficial for workers to accurately detect the presence of the queen because certain behaviors are essential to the colony while the queen is alive and laying eggs and other behaviors should only be performed after the queen has died. However, ant colonies can be large and workers may rarely be in close contact with the queen. In some ant colonies that I study, the colonies are spread among multiple disconnected subnests, and the queen stays in only one of these subnests, which creates special challenges for disseminating the presence of the queen to all workers in the colony.
Thanks to an Endeavour fellowship, I am currently spending six months in Townsville studying this problem in green ants, which have large colonies that live entirely in trees within leaves folded into chambers. In a single colony, as many as 0.5 million workers can be distributed across a system of chambers spread over 4 or 5 different trees. The queen resides in only one of these chambers, and yet workers can detect her presence throughout the colony. I use a combination of behavioral and chemical methods to understand how these ants solve this communication challenge. By comparing the green-ant solution to this problem to other ants that I work on that solve similar underground problems, I can better understand general principles of how long-range communication evolves in nature.