Temporal variation in foraging activity and efficiency and the role of hitchhiking behaviour in the leaf-cutting ant, Atta cephalotes
Yackulic CB., Lewis OT.
Two phenomena are integral to the foraging behaviour of leaf-cutting ants in the genus Atta: hitchhiking (where small ants ride on leaf fragments carried by larger workers) and rhythmic foraging (where foraging activity shows marked fluctuations over time). While parasitism by phorid flies has been implicated in eliciting both behaviours, recent research suggests fungal contaminants and the need to procure sap also play a key role in eliciting hitchhiking. For wild colonies of Atta cephalotes L. (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), we investigated the extent to which hitchhiking frequency varied in space and time and the foraging performance of day-time and night-time workers. Day-time foragers were considerably smaller than nocturnal foragers, a trend previously described as a response to diurnal phorids. Despite their smaller size, day-time foragers had higher foraging performance, perhaps as a consequence of decreased trail congestion. Larger leaf-carriers were more likely to carry hitchhikers and hitchhiking frequency was higher at night, an observation that conflicts with the parasitoid defence hypothesis, but not with the leaf sap and fungal defence hypotheses. Hitchhikers constitute a major proportion (typically 12%) of the loads carried by workers, and have three times the effect of leaf fragment mass on forager velocity. However, they reduced energetic efficiency by only 2.6% and provisioning rate by 5.9%. Our results provide partial support for the parasitoid defence hypothesis, but suggest that both the risks of parasitism and the opportunity-cost to foraging associated with carrying hitchhikers may be low. © 2007 The Authors.