Review Article

Back to basics: sociometry and sociogenesis of ant societies (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

Tschinkel, W.R.

Abstract: For several decades, social insect research has been dominated by a "top-down" approach that begins with evolutionary theory or mathematical models. A "bottom-up" approach based on a detailed description of the physical, numerical and life history attributes of social insect colonies has been largely neglected. I define the quantitative description of colony attributes as sociometry, the measuring of a society. I argue that sociometry can be a generous, unbiased source of testable hypotheses, and leads to a deeper understanding of social insect function, life history and evolution. Whereas there is a large deficit in sociometric data, the deficit of colony ontogeny data, defined as sociogenesis, is even greater. Yet, social insects offer an opportunity to generalize developmental processes to the colony level. Moreover, these processes can be anchored in local ecological conditions, thus linking development to evolution. A simple, practical method for the simultaneous collection of sociometry / sociogenesis data is described. By complete sampling and measurement of the full size range of a focal species' colonies on several carefully chosen dates throughout the annual cycle, a description (sociometry) of colonies during growth (sociogenesis) and through the seasons (annual life cycle) is generated. Our understanding of social insect biology would be greatly enhanced by the widespread adoption of the sociometric / sociogenesis method as the starting point of social insect studies.