Task switching is associated with temporal delays in Temnothorax rugatulus ants

Gavin M. Leighton, Daniel Charbonneau, Anna Dornhaus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The major evolutionary transitions often result in reorganization of biological systems, and a component of such reorganization is that individuals within the system specialize on performing certain tasks, resulting in a division of labor. Although the traditional benefit of division of labor is thought to be a gain in work efficiency, one alternative benefit of specialization is avoiding temporal delays associated with switching tasks. While models have demonstrated that costs of task switching can drive the evolution of division of labor, little empirical support exists for this hypothesis. We tested whether there were task-switching costs in Temnothorax rugatulus. We recorded the behavior of every individual in 44 colonies and used this dataset to identify each instance where an individual performed a task, spent time in the interval (i.e., inactive, wandering inside, and self-grooming), and then performed a task again. We compared the interval time where an individual switched task type between that first and second bout of work to instances where an individual performed the same type of work in both bouts. In certain cases, we find that the interval time was significantly shorter if individuals repeated the same task. We find this time cost for switching to a new behavior in all active worker groups, that is, independently of worker specialization. These results suggest that task-switching costs may select for behavioral specialization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)319-327
Number of pages9
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Temnothorax rugatulus
  • division of labor
  • social insects
  • specialization
  • task switching

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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

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