Leaf-cutter ants are the world’s first farmers, and the principal insect pest and ecosystem engineers in the Neotropics. A key contributor to their astonishing success is a continuous size-distribution of the colony workforce, and an associated “division of labour”; ant workers of different sizes preferentially perform distinct tasks, which results in specialisation and a putative increase in colony fitness. In this seminar, I will argue that a biomechanical perspective can help to test this “ergonomic hypothesis” in two steps. I will first demonstrate how biomechanical constraints lead to a different size-dependence of biting and cutting forces, putting larger workers at a putative advantage. I will then discuss how a combination of computer vision, photogrammetry and free 3D gaming engines can be used to teach computers to detect, track, and estimate the size of hundreds of ants at natural foraging sites, so providing the data required to test quantitative hypotheses on optimal task-size-distributions.
David is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering, Imperial College London. In his research, David combines his two main passions: his love for animals, and his admiration for physics. Together with his group, he investigates the influence of mechanical constraints on the performance, behaviour and evolution of arthropods (and sometimes larger animals or even plants!). Every day, David is deeply grateful that he has a job in which he can follow his interest, and that he gets to work with and learn from the passionate members of his research group.