During flash floods, fire ants (Solenopsis invicta Buren) link their bodies together to build rafts to stay afloat, and towers to anchor onto floating vegetation. Can such challenging conditions facilitate synchronization and coordination, resulting in energy savings per capita? To understand how stress affects metabolic rate, we used constant-volume respirometry to measure the metabolism of fire ant workers. Group metabolic rates were measured in a series of conditions: at normal state, at three elevated temperatures, during rafting, and during tower-building. We hypothesized that the metabolic rate of ants at various temperatures would scale isometrically (proportionally with the group mass). Indeed, we found metabolic rates scaled isometrically under all temperature conditions, giving evidence that groups of ants differ from entire colonies, which scale allometrically. We then hypothesized that the metabolism of ants engaged in rafting and tower-building would scale allometrically. We found partial evidence for this hypothesis: ants rafting for short times had allometric metabolic rates, but this effect vanished after 30 min. Rafting for long times and tower-building both scaled isometrically. Tower-building consumed the same energy per capita as ants in their normal state. Rafting ants consumed almost 43% more energy than ants in their normal state, with smaller rafts consuming more energy per capita. Together, our results suggest that stressful conditions requiring coordination can influence metabolic demand.
This article has an associated First Person interview with the first author of the paper.