Our study system, the clonal raider ant Ooceraea biroi (formerly: Cerapachys biroi), combines the rich social biology of ants with a high degree of experimental amenability. This species displays an unusually simple social organization: colonies have no queens, but instead consist of workers that reproduce clonally and synchronously. Synchronized brood development drives stereotypical behavioral cycles of about one month, in which colonies alternate between reproductive and brood care phases. During the reproductive phase, all workers remain in the nest and lay parthenogenetic eggs. During the brood care phase, a simple form of division of labor emerges: some workers nurse larvae inside the nest while others leave the nest to forage. This unique biology provides maximal experimental control over age and genotype at the individual and group levels.
We have use a setup that can acquire images from over 100 experimental colonies simultaneously in a time- and cost-efficient manner, and tracking software that extracts behavioral profiles from each individual in each colony.
In parallel, we are developing protocols to infect ants with various live pathogens and monitor their transmission to other colony members in real-time.
Finally, we investigate the proximate drivers of disease-relevant social behavior using experimental manipulations of immune activity, molecular tools, and through collaborations with chemical ecologists.