F. B. Oberhauser, E. J. T. Middleton, T. Latty, and T. J. Czaczkes
Engineered paths increase efficiency and safety but also incur construction and maintenance costs, leading to a trade-off between investment and gain. Such a trade-off is faced by Australian meat ants, which create and maintain vegetation-free trails between nests and food sources, and thus their trails are expected to be constructed selectively. To test this, we placed an artificial obstacle consisting of 300 paper grass blades between a sucrose feeder and the colony, flanked by walls of either 10 or 80cm length. To exploit the feeder, ants could detour around the walls or take a direct route by traversing through the obstacle. We found that, when confronted with a long alternative detour, 76% of colonies removed more grass blades and ants were also 60% more likely to traverse the obstacle instead of detouring, with clearing activity favouring higher ant flow or vice versa. An analysis of cut patterns revealed that ants did not cut randomly, but instead concentrated on creating a trail to the food source. Meat ants were thus able to collectively deploy their trail clearing efforts in a directed manner when detour costs were high, and rapidly established cleared trails to the food source by focussing on completing a central, vertically aligned trail which was then followed by the ants.