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Noise resistant synchronization and collective rhythm switching in a model of animal group locomotion.


Biology is suffused with rhythmic behaviour, and interacting biological oscillators often synchronize their rhythms with one another. Colonies of some ant species are able to synchronize their activity to fall into coherent bursts, but models of this phenomenon have neglected the potential effects of intrinsic noise and interspecific differences in individual-level behaviour. We investigated the individual and collective activity patterns of two Leptothorax ant species. We show that in one species (Leptothorax sp. W), ants converge onto rhythmic cycles of synchronized collective activity with a period of about 20 min. A second species (Leptothorax crassipilis) exhibits more complex collective dynamics, where dominant collective cycle periods range from 16 min to 2.8 h. Recordings that last 35 h reveal that, in both species, the same colony can exhibit multiple oscillation frequencies. We observe that workers of both species can be stimulated by nest-mates to become active after a refractory resting period, but the durations of refractory periods differ between the species and can be highly variable. We model the emergence of synchronized rhythms using an agent-based model informed by our empirical data. This simple model successfully generates synchronized group oscillations despite the addition of noise to ants' refractory periods. We also find that adding noise reduces the likelihood that the model will spontaneously switch between distinct collective cycle frequencies.

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