Within-individual behavioural variability and division of labour in social insects [COMMENTARY]

Raphaël Jeanson

Division of labour, whereby individuals divide the workload in a group, is a recurrent property of social living. The current conceptual framework for division of labour in social insects is provided by the response-threshold model. This model posits that the differences between individuals (i.e. between-individual variability) in responsiveness to task-associated stimuli is a key feature for task specialisation. The consistency of individual behaviours (i.e. within-individual variability) in task performance represents an additional but little-considered component driving robust patterns of division of labour. On the one hand, the presence of workers with a high level of within-individual variability presumably allows colonies to rapidly adapt to external fluctuations. On the other hand, a reduced degree of within-individual variability promotes a stricter specialisation in task performance, thereby limiting the costs of task switching. The ideal balance between flexibility and canalisation probably varies depending on the developmental stage of the colony to satisfy its changing needs. Here, I introduce the main sources of within-individual variability in behaviours in social insects and I review neural correlates accompanying the changes in behavioural flexibility. I propose the hypothesis that the positive scaling between group size and the intensity of task specialisation, a relationship consistently reported both within and between taxa, may rely on reduced within-individual variability via self-organised processes linked to the quality of brood care. Overall, I emphasise the need for a more comprehensive characterisation of the response dynamics of individuals to better understand the mechanisms shaping division of labour in social insects.

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