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Ant Colonies With Personalities? The Meek and the Bold

Aug 16, 2014 05:32 PM EDT

Researchers studying the behavioral patterns of ant colonies are suggesting that each nest can actually have its own collective personality that is shaped by the environment.

No, you won't find ant colonies that like to collect stamps or seek thrills, but you will find very different and predictable patterns of behavior if you look closely enough at several ant colonies.

That's at least what researchers from the University of Arizona are claiming in their latest study, which was just published in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B, a scientific journal.

According to the study, researchers Sarah Bengston and Anna Dornhaus tracked down various ant colonies in the Western US to first make field observations, such as how far the ants would go foraging for food.

"I spend a lot of time looking slightly like a crazy person on the side of hiking trails," Bengston joked in an interview with BBC News. "It can get a little tedious but it's also a lot of fun, because you get to see a lot of natural behaviors that we wouldn't necessarily see in the lab."

When Bengston's field observations were complete, she then  toted whole colonies back to a lab, where she and Dornhaus could observe things like total activity and physical aggressiveness through transparent containers.

Amazingly, through these combined observations, the researchers found that ant colonies behave radically different depending on where they were from, even if they were of the same species.

"Sometimes individuals behave differently from one another, and when they do that repeatedly through time, we say that they have a personality," Bengston explained.

She added that in the case of ants, its simplest to break them into two personality types, "meek" or "bold."

According to the study, this is largely characterized by foraging efforts verses nest defense. Some colonies are bold and explorative gatherers of food, while others seem almost too nervous to leave their homes for long.

The researchers suspect that this has a lot to do with the length of the winter season, where some ant colonies learn to be bolder because they have a shorter window of time to gather food than their meek counterparts.

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