Biologists have long been aware that adaptations should not be analysed in isolation from the function of the whole organism. Here, we address the equivalent issue at the scale of a social insect colony: the optimality of component behaviours in a partitioned sequence of tasks. In colonies of Atta colombica, a leaf-cutting ant, harvested leaf tissue is passed from foragers to nest workers that distribute, clean, shred and implant the tissue in fungal gardens. In four laboratory colonies of A. colombica, we found that the highest colony-wide rate of leaf tissue processing in the nest was achieved when leaf fragment sizes were suboptimal for individual delivery rate by foragers. Leaf-cutting ant colonies appear to compromise the efficiency of collecting leaf tissue in order to increase their ability to handle the material when it arrives in the nest. Such compromise reinforces the idea that behavioural adaptations, like adaptations in general, must be considered within the context of the larger entity of which they are a part.
Burd, M. and J.J. Howard. 2008. Optimality in a partitioned task performed by social insects. Biology Letters 4 (6): 627-629.