Working together allows social animals to accomplish tasks beyond the abilities of solitary individuals, but the benefits of cooperation must be balanced with the costs of coordination. Many ant species form cooperative groups to transport items too large for a single ant. However, transport by groups is often slower and less efficient than that of lone ants, for reasons that remain poorly understood. We tested the hypothesis that groups are slower when porters must encircle the load to carry it, because this arrangement places ants in a variety of postures relative to the load and the direction of travel. Porters may therefore have difficulty maximizing individual forces and aligning them with those of other group members. Experiments on the desert ant Novomessor cockerelli, an adept cooperative transporter, did not support this hypothesis. Groups ranging in size from one to four ants were induced to carry loads such that all porters were aligned with one another. Load weight was adjusted so that all porters pulled the same per capita weight, but lone porters were nonetheless faster than groups of any size. As group size increased, porters persisted in carrying the load for longer periods before letting go. We used simulations to explore a scenario in which ants vary in their intrinsic speed and the group's speed is limited by that of its slowest member. This proposed mechanism is analogous to other social groups where group efficiency is determined by the weakest link. We discuss how interactions among porters, mediated by the load itself, might explain such a constraint.
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