Occupancy patterns in superorganisms: a spin-glass approach to ant exploration

Cristín, JavierBartumeus, Frederic Méndez, VicençCampos, Daniel. Royal Society Open Science 7 : 201250 (2020)  DIGITAL CSIC

Emergence of collective, as well as superorganism-like, behaviour in biological populations requires the existence of rules of communication, either direct or indirect, between organisms. Because reaching an understanding of such rules at the individual level can be often difficult, approaches carried out at higher, or effective, levels of description can represent a useful alternative. In the present work, we show how a spinglass approach characteristic of statistical physics can be used as a tool to characterize the properties of the spatial occupancy patterns of a biological population. We exploit the presence of pairwise interactions in spin-glass models for detecting correlations between occupancies at different sites in the media. Such correlations, we claim, represent a proxy to the existence of planned and/or social strategies in the spatial organization of the population. Our spin-glass approach does not only identify those correlations but produces a statistical replica of the system (at the level of occupancy patterns) that can be subsequently used for testing alternative conditions/ hypothesis. Here, this methodology is presented and illustrated for a particular case of study: we analyse occupancy patterns of Aphaenogaster senilis ants during foraging through a simplified environment consisting of a discrete (tree-like) artificial lattice. Our spin-glass approach consistently reproduces the experimental occupancy patterns across time, and besides, an intuitive biological interpretation of the parameters is attainable. Likewise, we prove that pairwise correlations are important for reproducing these dynamics by showing how a null model, where such correlations are neglected, would perform much worse; this provides a solid evidence to the existence of superorganism-like strategies in the colony.