Deborah M. Gordon , Ph.D.

Professor of Biology

Stanford University

Born in 1955 in Miami, Fla., USA
Studied French at Oberlin College, Biology at Stanford University, and Zoology at Duke University

Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford


The Evolution of Collective Behavior

Collective behavior is widespread in nature. I am interested in how the processes that produce collective behavior from simple interactions evolve, in response to changing ecological conditions. My research examines how ant colonies work collectively without central control, using local interactions. No ant directs the behavior of another or provides instructions. The queen merely lays the eggs.
My project will bring together the results of my 30-year study in the southwestern US that tracks a population of about 300 colonies of desert harvester ants. Harvester ant colonies regulate foraging using the rate of antennal contacts, when one ant smells the odor of another. An outgoing forager does not leave the nest until it meets enough foragers returning with food. This feedback links foraging activity to food availability although no ant can make any global assessments.
The goal of my project is to link the spatial history and demography of the population over 30 years, the development of a colony within its neighborhood of colonies, and the network of interactions among ants that regulates from hour to hour the foraging activity of a colony. Examining how these differ among colonies will help to understand how natural selection is shaping collective behavior.
A colony lives for 20-30 years. It begins with one ant, the founding queen, who, after an original mating session, continues for the rest of her life to produce all the ants. A colony's collective behavior changes as it grows older and larger. Since workers live only a year, this is not due to the experience of older ants, but rather to changes in the network of interactions as the colony grows. My data also make it possible to compare colonies. Colonies differ consistently in how they regulate foraging. This seems to be due to neurophysiological differences, which we are now investigating, in how the ants respond to interactions. I will ask how colonies differ in the development of their collective behavior.

Recommended Reading

Gordon, Deborah M. (2014). "The ecology of collective behavior." PloS Biology. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001805.
-. (2013). "The rewards of restraint in the collective regulation of foraging by harvester ant colonies." Nature 498: 91-93. doi: 10.1038/nature12137.
-. (2010). Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Publications for non-specialists on lab website:

Publications from the Fellow Library

Gordon, Deborah M. ( 2014)
The ecology of collective behavior

Gordon, Deborah M. ( 2013)
The rewards of restraint in the collective regulation of foraging by harvester ant colonies