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Plastic collective endothermy in a complex animal society (army ant bivouacs: Eciton burchellii parvispinum)

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Endothermic animals do not always have a single adaptive internal temperature; some species exhibit plastic homeostasis, adaptively allowing body temperature to drop when thermoregulatory costs are high. Like large‐bodied endotherms, some animal societies exhibit collective thermal homeostasis. We tested for plasticity of thermoregulation in the self‐assembled temporary nests (bivouacs) of army ants. We measured core bivouac temperatures under a range of environmental conditions and at different colony developmental (larval vs pupal brood) stages. Contrary to previous assertions, bivouacs were not perfect thermoregulators in all developmental stages. Instead, bivouacs functioned as superorganismal facultative endotherms, using a combination of site choice and context‐dependent metabolic heating to adjust core temperatures across an elevational cline in ambient temperature. When ambient temperature was low, the magnitude of metabolic heating was dependent on colony developmental stage: pupal bivouacs were warmer than larval bivouacs. At cooler high elevations, bivouacs functioned like some endothermic animals that intermittently lower their body temperatures to conserve energy. Bivouacs potentially conserved energy by investing less metabolic heating in larval brood because the high costs of impaired worker development may require more stringent thermoregulation of pupae. Our data also suggest that site choice played an important role in bivouac cooling under high ambient temperatures at low elevations. Climate warming may expand upper elevational range limits of Eciton burchellii parvispinum, while reducing the availability of cool and moist bivouac sites at lower elevations, potentially leading to future low‐elevation range contraction.
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Keywords: altitude; nest site choice; thermal regulation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2019

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