Life Inside an Acorn: How Microclimate and Microbes Influence Nest Organization in Temnothorax Ants

Joseph Karlik, Mary Jane Epps, Robert R. Dunn, Clint A. Penick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Nests provide a buffer against environmental variation, but conditions may also vary at different locations within a nest. Conditions can vary based on abiotic factors, such as moisture and temperature, as well as biotic factors, such as the presence of microbes and potential pathogens. Therefore, characterizing how animals adjust their position inside their nests to track microclimate preferences while at the same time preventing pathogen exposure is necessary to understand the benefits nests provide. Here we studied how colonies of the acorn-nesting ant Temnothorax curvispinosus responded to experimental manipulation of moisture, temperature, and microbial growth inside their nests. Colonies showed no response to differences in moisture and moved to the bottom of the acorn regardless of moisture treatment. When nests were heated from the top to simulate warming by the sun, workers preferentially moved brood to the warm, upper half of the acorn, which would stimulate brood development. Finally, the strongest factor that influenced colony position was the presence of microbes inside the nest—colonies avoided the bottom of the nest when it was inoculated with microbes, and colonies in new acorns shifted to the top of the acorn over time as mold and other microbes had time to grow. The relatively strong response of T. curvispinosus to microbial growth inside their nests suggests that pathogen pressures—in addition to microclimate—have a significant impact on how colonies use nest spaces. Social insects are known to invest heavily in antimicrobial compounds that kill or slow the growth of microbes, but avoidance may represent an additional line of defense to prevent pathogen exposure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)790-797
Number of pages8
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Temnothorax
  • ants
  • microbes
  • nest architecture
  • pathogens
  • thermoregulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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