Audrey Dussutour: Insect Traffic Cop
Audrey Dussutour never had a special fondness for ants, but over the last decade, she’s gotten to know them very well—especially their propensity to act as a single organism though hundreds or thousands of individuals may comprise a single colony. “It’s fascinating, because it works exactly opposite to humans—there’s no leader,” she says. Her first introduction to this collective behavior in an undergraduate course was enough to convince her that it was the field for her. “Ants were just the model organism.”
As a Masters student under Jean-Louis Deneubourg at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, Dussutour designed a two-pronged pathway from an experimental ant nest to a food source to examine how the flow of ants changed as she modified the width of each trail. The organisms, she found, used collisions as a feedback signal to self-regulate their movement patterns....
Dussutour stuck with ants for her PhD under Deneubourg and Vincent Fourcassié at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse. Studying trafficking can be a painstaking task—there’s no software that tracks ant movement, so each experiment had to be filmed, and travel patterns scored by hand. “Every day she had a new idea [about how to] analyze her data or make a new experiment,” says Deneubourg. “We were the followers in this story.”
For her first postdoc, Dussutour turned from ant traffic to food preferences in forest tent caterpillars—also social insects—in Emma Despland’s lab at Concordia University in Canada.2 For her second, she joined the lab of Stephen Simpson at the University of Sydney, who studies how organisms—from locusts and fish to mice and humans—make decisions about nutrition. They embarked on a project that merged his interests and hers: determining how a small group of ants supplying food for the entire colony is able to satiate nest mates amid changes in food availability and colony size. By varying the amounts of food available to the insects, the duo demonstrated that foraging ants don’t simply gather all the food they can find, but rather tailor their foraging to fulfill the colony’s nutritional needs as communicated through pheromone signals. “An ant colony is a kind of collective mouth and gut,” Dussutour explains.3
Dussutour’s stay down under yielded a slew of publications. “She has a huge capacity to do those incredibly detailed laboratory experiments which just require endless time watching the behavior of individuals in groups,” says Simpson. “To have brought together current advances in nutritional theory with the work on collective behavior is really unique.”
Early this year, Dussutour was awarded a research position through France’s federal science agency, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and established her own lab at the Université Paul Sabatier. She and Deneubourg plan to resume their ant trafficking research. Meanwhile, on a recent trip home from Australia, Dussutour stowed some slime mold in her luggage, and she and Simpson are beginning to investigate that organism’s ability to regulate nutritional intake on a colony level. “It’s a perfect lab animal—even if it’s not an animal,” she says.
Position: Research scientist at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université Paul Sabatier, Toulouse
1. A. Dussutour et al., “Optimal traffic organization in ants under crowded conditions,” Nature 428:70–73, 2004. (Cited in 39 papers)
2. A. Dussutour et al., “When the group denies individual nutritional wisdom,” Anim Behav, 74:931–29, 2007. (Cited in 4 papers)
3. A. Dussutour and S.J. Simpson, “Carbohydrate regulation in relation to colony growth in ants,” J Exp Biol, 211:2224–32, 2008. (Cited in 4 papers)