Metabolic rates of individual animals and social insect colonies generally scale hypometrically, with mass-specific metabolic rates decreasing with increasing size. Although this allometry has wide ranging effects on social behaviour, ecology and evolution, its causes remain controversial. Because it is difficult to experimentally manipulate body size of organisms, most studies of metabolic scaling depend on correlative data, limiting their ability to determine causation. To overcome this limitation, we experimentally reduced the size of harvester ant colonies (Pogonomyrmex californicus) and quantified the consequent increase in mass-specific metabolic rates. Our results clearly demonstrate a causal relationship between colony size and hypometric changes in metabolic rate that could not be explained by changes in physical density. These findings provide evidence against prominent models arguing that the hypometric scaling of metabolic rate is primarily driven by constraints on resource delivery or surface area/volume ratios, because colonies were provided with excess food and colony size does not affect individual oxygen or nutrient transport. We found that larger colonies had lower median walking speeds and relatively more stationary ants and including walking speed as a variable in the mass-scaling allometry greatly reduced the amount of residual variation in the model, reinforcing the role of behaviour in metabolic allometry. Following the experimental size reduction, however, the proportion of stationary ants increased, demonstrating that variation in locomotory activity cannot solely explain hypometric scaling of metabolic rates in these colonies. Based on prior studies of this species, the increase in metabolic rate in size-reduced colonies could be due to increased anabolic processes associated with brood care and colony growth.
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