Many individual decisions are informed by direct comparison of the alternatives. In collective decisions, however, only certain group members may have the opportunity to compare options. Emigrating ant colonies (Temnothorax albipennis) show sophisticated nest-site choice, selecting superior sites even when they are nine times further away than the alternative. How do they do this? We used radio-frequency identification-tagged ants to monitor individual behaviour. Here we show for the first time that switching between nests during the decision process can influence nest choice without requiring direct comparison of nests. Ants finding the poor nest were likely to switch and find the good nest, whereas ants finding the good nest were more likely to stay committed to that nest. When ants switched quickly between the two nests, colonies chose the good nest. Switching by ants that had the opportunity to compare nests had little effect on nest choice. We suggest a new mechanism of collective nest choice: individuals respond to nest quality by the decision either to commit or to seek alternatives. Previously proposed mechanisms, recruitment latency and nest comparison, can be explained as side effects of this simple rule. Colony-level comparison and choice can emerge, without direct comparison by individuals.


    • Received March 2, 2009.
    • Accepted April 1, 2009.
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