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Abstract

Nycthemeral rhythm is an important biological trait that allows animals to escape predation and competition and, conversely, to coincide with mutualists. Although laboratory studies have shown that the rhythm depends on both endogenous factors and cyclic environmental cues, the latter is often poorly understood, particularly in the wild. Because insects are mostly ectothermal organisms, their activity rhythm is often thought to depend directly on ground temperature. In Mediterranean habitats, Cataglyphis ants are well known for their unusual thermoresistance, allowing them to forage in summer at the central hours of the day when the ground reaches temperatures that are lethal to their competitors. However, we show that the rhythm of Cataglyphis floricola in south-western Spain is governed by light cues rather than by temperature. First, variations in ant traffic at the nest entrance were better explained by solar elevation angle than by ground temperature on both seasonal and daily scales. Second, if ants waited for the ground to reach a threshold temperature to start their activity, we would expect similar temperatures regardless of the opening hour. However, we found a significant increase in ground temperature as opening hour got later in the day. Third, by using a simple experimental set-up that increased the apparent solar elevation over the nest entrance, we provoked a delay of nest closure time. We discuss the relevance of these results with respect to the life history of Cataglyphis species and their possible consequences in relation to global warming.