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The Y-maze:

a standard tool for examining information use

Almost all of our studies on information, and much of our comparative psychology work, uses simple Y-mazes to dissect how ants think. We recently wrote a methods primer on this deceptively simple piece of kit. Want to do some ant behavioural research yourself? A Y maze might be just the thing you need.

A) a schematic view of the apparatus used in my lab to study Lasius niger (pictured to scale).  Fixed plastic surfaces extend almost the entire length of the arms and stem, ending at the dotted lines (see C). These are covered by disposable paper overlays. At the end of each arm a plastic platform is affixed, on which visually identical drops of sucrose solution (reward), water (no reward), or quinine solution (punishment) can be placed. B) Many ants can be easily marked individually while feeding at the end of the Y-maze arm by dabbing their abdomen with a dot of acrylic paint. C) A picture of the suggested basic Y-maze with disposable paper overlays on the stem and left arm. The fixed plastic surfaces are raised on stilts over water moats.

Information use by social insects

Animals have access to many types of non-genetic information; private ones such as memory and state (e..g hunger), and public ones such as temperature and visual cues. Social animals, especially social insects, make extensive use of social information, such as communication of food sources via pheromone trails in ants. We study how ants integrate the information sources they have available in order to make individual and collective decisions.

Here are some examples of projects we ran or are running:

Ambiguity avoidance and certainty preference

Humans hate ambiguity and love certainty. People are willing to pay extra just to have a fixed result rather than an (equally valuable) chance. In social insects, we often find individuals ignoring what their sisters are telling them, and following their own memories instead. This seems to be because ants also have a preference for certain over uncertain information. We find that by removing uncertainty about the quality of a food source their sisters are advertising, ants are willing to abandon a known but poor food source in favour of a different food source. If we don't remove the uncertainty, or provide certain information that the new food is not better, ants ignore the social information from their sisters.

The link between behavioural syndromes and information use

Individuals differ: some are bold, some are shy, some are active, some are lazy. These traits often link into syndromes: bold animals are often (but not always) more aggressive, for example.

In an ongoing project we are asking: does information use link up to specific behavioural syndromes? Are bold ants more likely to follow pheromone trails over memory, and are they less likely to lay their own pheromone trails?

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