When being flexible matters: Ecological underpinnings for the evolution of collective flexibility and task allocation

Merlijn Staps, Corina E. Tarnita

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Task allocation is a central feature of collective organization. Living collective systems, such as multicellular organisms or social insect colonies, have evolved diverse ways to allocate individuals to different tasks, ranging from rigid, inflexible task allocation that is not adjusted to changing circumstances to more fluid, flexible task allocation that is rapidly adjusted to the external environment. While the mechanisms underlying task allocation have been intensely studied, it remains poorly understood whether differences in the flexibility of task allocation can be viewed as adaptive responses to different ecological contexts-for example, different degrees of temporal variability. Motivated by this question, we develop an analytically tractable mathematical framework to explore the evolution of task allocation in dynamic environments.We find that collective flexibility is not necessarily always adaptive, and fails to evolve in environments that change too slowly (relative to how long tasks can be left unattended) or too quickly (relative to how rapidly task allocation can be adjusted). We further employ the framework to investigate how environmental variability impacts the internal organization of task allocation, which allows us to propose adaptive explanations for some puzzling empirical observations, such as seemingly unnecessary task switching under constant environmental conditions, apparent task specialization without efficiency benefits, and high levels of individual inactivity. Altogether, this work provides a general framework for probing the evolved diversity of task allocation strategies in nature and reinforces the idea that considering a system's ecology is crucial to explaining its collective organization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2116066119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number18
StatePublished - May 3 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • division of labor
  • environmental variability
  • specialization
  • task allocation
  • task switching


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