Division of labour by provisioners

Ronald C. Ydenberg*, Lia Hemerik

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Question: Animals of many species work as members of a group such as a pair or colony to provision various resources to a central place. Group members could work as generalists (all group members self-feed to obtain fuel and deliver cargo; e.g. food items for offspring, non-food items such as building materials) or as specialists (collect only fuel, or only cargo). Mathematical method: We developed a simple analytical model to investigate conditions favouring these basic alternatives. Key assumptions: We assumed that natural selection favours mechanisms that maximize the delivery rate of cargo, fuel being important only in so far as it enables the work of the delivery of cargo to be supported. Conclusions: The model shows that this division of labour boosts the aggregate rate of cargo delivery when the round trip time a provisioner saves by not having to forage for its own fuel more than offsets the required allocation of group members to exclusive fuel collection. We note that groups with this provisioning division of labour are common in social insects, but appear absent among vertebrates. Several hypotheses may explain this marked difference. We suggest that provisioning by division of labour represents an early step in social evolution that was greatly elaborated in the bees and ants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)671-683
JournalEvolutionary Ecology Research
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Central place foraging
  • Collection of fuel vs. cargo resources
  • Division of labour
  • Provisioning
  • Social evolution
  • Teamwork

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