Complex relationship between tunneling patterns and individual behaviors in termites

Nobuaki Mizumoto, Paul M. Bardunias, Stephen C. Pratt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The nests built by social insects are complex group-level structures that emerge from interactions among individuals following simple behavioral rules. Nest patterns vary among species, and the theory of complex systems predicts that there is no simple one-to-one relationship between variation in collective patterns and variation in individual behaviors. Therefore, a species-by-species comparison of the actual building process is essential to understand the mechanism producing diverse nest patterns. Here, we compare tunnel formation of three termite sp ecies and reveal two mechanisms producing interspecific variation: In one, a common behavioral rule yields distinct patterns via parameter tuning, and in the other, distinct rules produce similar patterns.We found that two related species transport sand in the same way using mandibles but build tunnels with different degrees of branching. The variation arises from different probabilities of choosing between two behavioral options at crowded tunnel faces: Excavating the sidewall to make a new branch or waiting for clearance to extend the current tunnel. We further discovered that a third species independently evolved low-branched patterns using different building rules, namely, a bucket brigade that can excavate a crowded tunnel. Our findings emphasize the importance of direct comparative study of collective behaviors at both individual and group levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)555-565
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020


  • Collective behaviors
  • Construction
  • Self-organization
  • Social insects
  • Termites
  • Tunneling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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