Queen movement during colony emigration in the facultatively polygynous ant Pachycondyla obscuricornis

In ants, nest relocations are frequent but nevertheless perilous, especially for the reproductive caste. During emigrations, queens are exposed to predation and face the risk of becoming lost. Therefore the optimal strategy should be to move the queen(s) swiftly to a better location, while maintaining maximum worker protection at all times in the new and old nests. The timing of that event is a crucial strategic issue for the colony and may depend on queen number. In monogynous colonies, the queen is vital for colony survival, whereas in polygynous colonies a queen is less essential, if not dispensable. We tested the null hypothesis that queen movement occurs at random within the sequence of emigration events in both monogynous and polygynous colonies of the ponerine ant Pachycondyla obscuricornis. Our study, based on 16 monogynous and 16 polygynous colony emigrations, demonstrates for the first time that regardless of the number of queens per colony, the emigration serial number of a queen occurs in the middle of all emigration events and adult ant emigration events, but not during brood transport events. It therefore appears that the number of workers in both nests plays an essential role in the timing of queen movement. Our results correspond to a robust colony-level strategy since queen emigration is related neither to colony size nor to queen number. Such an optimal strategy is characteristic of ant societies working as highly integrated units and represents a new instance of group-level adaptive behaviors in social insect colonies.

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