Like other ants (Hymenoptera, Formicidae), leafcutter ants of the genus Atta use chemical signals, including airborne pheromones and cuticular hydrocarbons, to coordinate extraordinarily complex eusocial organization. This genus is ecologically and economically important because of its extreme impact on vegetation throughout the Neotropics, and also lends itself well to ethological research because of its easily observed and manipulated foraging behavior. Saverschek et al. (2010) used fungicide-treated leaves to induce an avoidance response to certain types of leaves, demonstrating that colonies of Atta columbica are capable of experiential learning and long-term memory. The proposed study will use similar methods to determine whether this species is also capable of observational learning, which has never before been studied in eusocial insects. This study will work with three field colonies and two laboratory formicaria of A. columbica in Panama, bringing ants in which an avoidance response has been induced into contact with untreated colonies to determine whether learned behavior can be transmitted between colonies. Three different exposure conditions will be used, to test three possible mechanisms of information transmission. Results will be assessed by measuring each colony’s acceptance of the experimental leaf species, with an untreated leaf species offered as a control. This project is expected to take approximately 4 months and to cost less than $20,000, which will be used for materials, human labor, and transportation to and living expenses in Panama.
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