1. In social insects, the number of nests that a colony inhabits may have important consequences for colony genetic structure, the number of queens, sex allocation, foraging efficiency, and nestmate recognition. Within the ants, colonies may either occupy a single nest (monodomy) or may be organised into a complex network of nests and trails, a condition known as polydomy.
2. The current study is a large-scale, long-term, comprehensive field examination of various features of colony social and spatial structure in the facultatively polydomous black carpenter ant, Camponotus pennsylvanicus (DeGeer). The study examined the density, persistence, and the spatiotemporal distribution of colonies across a gradient of land disturbance associated with urban development. The temporal and spatial pattern of nest use was compared between fragmented landscapes where nesting sites were interspersed among human-built structures (urban plots) and less disturbed landscapes with higher tree density (suburban plots). In addition, nesting site fidelity and changes in colony spatial structure were monitored over 7 years.
3. Long-term monitoring and extensive sampling over a large spatial area allowed the first comprehensive insight into the spatiotemporal dynamics of colony and population structure in C. pennsylvanicus. A total of 1113 trees were inspected over 233 ha. Camponotus pennsylvanicus were active on 348 of the 1113 trees (31%) and these represented 182 distinct colonies. The colonisation rate remained relatively stable over 7 years suggesting that an equilibrium point had been reached. Relative to the suburban plots, tree density was 65% lower in the urban plots. The proportion of trees colonised by C. pennsylvanicus was significantly higher in the urban plots suggesting that intraspecific competition for nesting sites may be especially high in areas with lower tree density. Colony spatial structure also differed significantly between habitats and a higher incidence of monodomy was observed in the urban environment. The average number of trees per colony across all subplots was 1.95 (range 1–4) indicating that C. pennsylvanicus are weakly polydomous.
4. The composite picture that emerges for C. pennsylvanicus colonies in the urban habitat is a chain reaction of events: (i) the urban habitat has a lower tree density, (ii) lower tree density results in higher tree colonisation rate, (iii) higher tree colonisation rate results in simpler colony spatial structure (i.e. higher incidence of monodomy), and (iv) simpler colony spatial structure results in numerically smaller colonies. Long-term monitoring of the spatiotemporal pattern of nest site use in selected colonies revealed a unique trend. While worker counts in selected colonies remained relatively stable throughout the course of the study, colony spatial structure changed considerably with 28% of colonies experiencing a change. Furthermore, the likelihood of detecting a change in colony spatial structure increased with the amount of time passing from the initial inspection.
5. In conclusion, tree density has a significant effect on a number of important colony features in C. pennsylvanicus. Besides tree density, other environmental features such as human-built structures cause habitat fragmentation and may act as natural barriers to worker dispersal and/or foraging. Such barriers may ultimately affect the social and/or spatial structure at both the colony and the population level.