Hysteresis stabilizes dynamic control of self-assembled army ant constructions
Biological systems must adjust to changing external conditions, and their resilience depends on their control mechanisms. How is dynamic control implemented in noisy, decentralized systems? Army ants’ self-assembled bridges are built on unstable features, like leaves, which frequently move. Using field experiments and simulations, we characterize the bridges’ response as the gaps they span change in size, identify the control mechanism, and explore how this emerges from individuals’ decisions. For a given gap size, bridges were larger after the gap increased rather than decreased. This hysteresis was best explained by an accumulator model, in which individual decisions to join or leave a bridge depend on the difference between its current and equilibrium state.This produces robust collective structures that adjust to lasting perturbations while ignoring small, momentary shifts. Our field data support separate joining and leaving cues; joining is prompted by high bridge performance and leaving by an excess of ants. This leads to stabilizing hysteresis, an important feature of many biological and engineered systems.