November 28, 2016

Individual Variation in Collective Behavior

Noa Pinter-Wollman, UCLA

Many biological systems are aggregates of individuals working synergistically to achieve collective goals. In social insects, evolution acts on variation in the emergent collective behaviors of the colony. Variation among colonies in collective behavior can result from differences in their composition and/or from differences in the environments in which they reside. To understand how environment and group composition shape collective outcomes I study the causes and consequences of individual variation in the behavior of both workers and colonies of ants and social spiders. Using field and lab studies combined with computer simulations, image analysis, and social network theory I show that both behavioral composition and spatial constraints shape collective outcomes. For example, exploratory individuals increase a group’s ability to detect high-quality nest sites, and nest architecture influences collective foraging dynamics. These findings demonstrate that social and physical environments interact to influence complex biological processes.