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Journal of Experimental Biology partnership with Dryad

Knowledgeable individuals lead collective decisions in ants
Nathalie Stroeymeyt, Nigel R. Franks, Martin Giurfa


Self-organisation underlies many collective processes in large animal groups, where coordinated patterns and activities emerge at the group level from local interactions among its members. Although the importance of key individuals acting as effective leaders has recently been recognised in certain collective processes, it is widely believed that self-organised decisions are evenly shared among all or a subset of individuals acting as decision-makers, unless there are significant conflicts of interests among group members. Here, we show that certain individuals are disproportionately influential in self-organised decisions in a system where all individuals share the same interests: nest site selection by the ant Temnothorax albipennis. Workers that visited a good available nest site prior to emigration (the familiar nest) memorised its location, and later used this memory to navigate efficiently and find that nest faster than through random exploration. Additionally, these workers relied on their private information to expedite individual decisions about the familiar nest. This conferred a bias in favour of familiar nests over novel nests during emigrations. Informed workers were shown to have a significantly greater share in both recruitment and transport to the familiar nest than naïve workers. This suggests that they were the main determinants of the collective preference for familiar nests, and thus contributed greatly to enhance collective performance. Overall, these results indicate that self-organised decisions are not always evenly shared among decision-makers, even in systems where there are no conflicts of interest. Animal groups may instead benefit from well-informed, knowledgeable individuals acting as leaders in decisions.


  • * Present address: Département d'Ecologie et d'Evolution, Biophore, Quartier UNIL-Sorge, Université de Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

  • Both authors contributed equally to this work

  • Supplementary material available online at

  • M.G. acknowledges the support of the CNRS and University Paul Sabatier. N.R.F. acknowledges EPSRC grant EP/D076226/1 and BBSRC grant BB/G02166X/1.

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