Reciprocal selection pressures in host–parasite systems drive coevolutionary arms races that lead to advanced adaptations in both opponents. In the interactions between social parasites and their hosts, aggression is one of the major behavioural traits under selection. In a field manipulation, we aimed to disentangle the impact of slavemaking ants and nest density on aggression of Temnothorax longispinosus ants. An early slavemaker mating flight provided us with the unique opportunity to study the influence of host aggression and demography on founding decisions and success. We discovered that parasite queens avoided colony foundation in parasitized areas and were able to capture more brood from less aggressive host colonies. Host colony aggression remained consistent over the two-month experiment, but did not respond to our manipulation. However, as one-fifth of all host colonies were successfully invaded by parasite queens, slavemaker nest foundation acts as a strong selection event selecting for high aggression in host colonies.
parasite; personality; dispersal; aggression; fitness
Social parasitism is an important selective pressure for social insect species. It is particularly the case for the hosts of dulotic (so called slave-making) ants, which pillage the brood of host colonies to increase the worker force of their own colony. Such raids can have an important impact on the fitness of the host nest. An arms race which can lead to geographic variation in host defenses is thus expected between hosts and parasites. In this study we tested whether the presence of a social parasite (the dulotic ant Myrmoxenus ravouxi) within an ant community correlated with a specific behavioral defense strategy of local host or non-host populations of Temnothorax ants. Social recognition often leads to more or less pronounced agonistic interactions between non-nestmates ants. Here, we monitored agonistic behaviors to assess whether ants discriminate social parasites from other ants. It is now well-known that ants essentially rely on cuticular hydrocarbons to discriminate nestmates from aliens. If host species have evolved a specific recognition mechanism for their parasite, we hypothesize that the differences in behavioral responses would not be fully explained simply by quantitative dissimilarity in cuticular hydrocarbon profiles, but should also involve a qualitative response due to the detection of particular compounds. We scaled the behavioral results according to the quantitative chemical distance between host and parasite colonies to test this hypothesis.
Cuticular hydrocarbon profiles were distinct between species, but host species did not show a clearly higher aggression rate towards the parasite than toward non-parasite intruders, unless the degree of response was scaled by the chemical distance between intruders and recipient colonies. By doing so, we show that workers of the host and of a non-host species in the parasitized site displayed more agonistic behaviors (bites and ejections) towards parasite than toward non-parasite intruders.
We used two different analyses of our behavioral data (standardized with the chemical distance between colonies or not) to test our hypothesis. Standardized data show behavioral differences which could indicate qualitative and specific parasite recognition. We finally stress the importance of considering the whole set of potentially interacting species to understand the coevolution between social parasites and their hosts.
Coevolution; Formicidae; Social recognition; Social parasitism; Temnothorax
The spatial structure of host–parasite coevolution is shaped by population structure and genetic diversity of the interacting species. We analysed these population genetic parameters in three related ant species: the parasitic slavemaking ant Protomognathus americanus and its two host species Temnothorax longispinosus and T. curvispinosus. We sampled throughout their range, genotyped ants on six to eight microsatellite loci and an MtDNA sequence and found high levels of genetic variation and strong population structure in all three species. Interestingly, the most abundant species and primary host, T. longispinosus, is characterized by less structure, but lower local genetic diversity. Generally, differences between the species were small, and we conclude that they have similar evolutionary potentials. The coevolutionary interaction between this social parasite and its hosts may therefore be less influenced by divergent evolutionary potentials, but rather by varying selection pressures. We employed different methods to quantify and compare genetic diversity and structure between species and genetic markers. We found that Jost D is well suited for these comparisons, as long as mutation rates between markers and species are similar. If this is not the case, for example, when using MtDNA and microsatellites to study sex-specific dispersal, model-based inference should be used instead of descriptive statistics (such as D or GST). Using coalescent-based methods, we indeed found that males disperse much more than females, but this sex bias in dispersal differed between species. The findings of the different approaches with regard to genetic diversity and structure were in good accordance with each other.
GST; host–parasite coevolution; Jost D; maximum likelihood methods; population genetics; social insects
Ants use the odour of the colony to discriminate nestmates. In some species, this odour is learned during the first days following emergence, and thus early experience has a strong influence on nestmate discrimination. Slave-making ants are social parasites that capture brood of other ant species to increase the worker force of their colony. After emerging in the slave-maker nest, slave workers work as if they were in their own colony. We tested the hypothesis that early experience allows the deception of commonly enslaved species, while non-host species use a different mechanism, which does not involve learning.
Pupae of a host species, Temnothorax unifasciatus, and a non-host species, T. parvulus, were allowed to emerge in the presence of workers of one of two slave-maker species, Chalepoxenus muellerianus or Myrmoxenus ravouxi. When T. unifasciatus was exposed to slave-makers for 10 days following emergence, they were more aggressive towards their own sisters and groomed the slave-maker more. T. parvulus gave a less clear result: while workers behaved more aggressively towards their sisters when exposed early to C. muellerianus workers, this was not the case when exposed early to M. ravouxi workers. Moreover, T. parvulus workers allogroomed conspecific nestmates less than T. unifasciatus. Allogrooming activity might be very important for the slave-makers because they are tended by their slaves.
Our findings show that early experience influences nestmate discrimination in the ant T. unifasciatus and can account for the successful enslavement of this species. However, the non-host species T. parvulus is less influenced by the early environment. This might help to explain why this species is never used by social parasites.
Recently, avian brood parasites and their hosts have emerged as model systems for the study of host-parasite coevolution. However, empirical studies of the highly analogous social parasites, which use the workers of another eusocial species to raise their own young, have never explicitly examined the dynamics of these systems from a coevolutionary perspective. Here, we demonstrate interpopulational variation in behavioural interactions between a socially parasitic slave-maker ant and its host that is consistent with the expectations of host-parasite coevolution. Parasite pressure, as inferred by the size, abundance and raiding frequency of Protomognathus americanus colonies, was highest in a New York population of the host Leptothorax longispinosus and lowest in a West Virginia population. As host-parasite coevolutionary theory would predict, we found that the slave-makers and the hosts from New York were more effective at raiding and defending against raiders, respectively, than were conspecifics from the West Virginia population. Some of these variations in efficacy were brought about by apparently simple shifts in behaviour. These results demonstrate that defence mechanisms against social parasites can evolve, and they give the first indications of the existence of a coevolutionary arms race between a social parasite and its host.
Social parasites are able to exploit their host's communication code and achieve social integration. For colony foundation, a newly mated slave-making ant queen must usurp a host colony. The parasite's brood is cared for by the hosts and newly eclosed slave-making workers integrate to form a mixed ant colony. To elucidate the social integration strategy of the slave-making workers, Polyergus rufescens, behavioural and chemical analyses were carried out. Cocoons of P. rufescens were introduced into subcolonies of four potential host species: Formica subgenus Serviformica (Formica cunicularia and F. rufibarbis, usual host species; F. gagates, rare host; F. selysi, non-natural host). Slave-making broods were cared for and newly emerged workers showed several social interactions with adult Formica. We recorded the occurrence of abdominal trophallaxis, in which P. rufescens, the parasite, was the donor. Social integration of P. rufescens workers into host colonies appears to rely on the ability of the parasite to modify its cuticular hydrocarbon profile to match that of the rearing species. To study the specific P. rufescens chemical profile, newly emerged callows were reared in isolation from the mother colony (without any contact with adult ants). The isolated P. rufescens workers exhibited a chemical profile closely matching that of the primary host species, indicating the occurrence of local host adaptation in the slave-maker population. However, the high flexibility in the ontogeny of the parasite's chemical signature could allow for host switching.
Social insect colonies are like fortresses, well protected and rich in shared stored resources. This makes them ideal targets for exploitation by predators, parasites and competitors. Colonies of Myrmica rubra ants are sometimes exploited by the parasitic butterfly Maculinea alcon. Maculinea alcon gains access to the ants' nests by mimicking their cuticular hydrocarbon recognition cues, which allows the parasites to blend in with their host ants. Myrmica rubra may be particularly susceptible to exploitation in this fashion as it has large, polydomous colonies with many queens and a very viscous population structure. We studied the mutual aggressive behaviour of My. rubra colonies based on predictions for recognition effectiveness. Three hypotheses were tested: first, that aggression increases with distance (geographical, genetic and chemical); second, that the more queens present in a colony and therefore the less-related workers within a colony, the less aggressively they will behave; and that colonies facing parasitism will be more aggressive than colonies experiencing less parasite pressure. Our results confirm all these predictions, supporting flexible aggression behaviour in Myrmica ants depending on context.
aggression; defence; social parasite; Maculinea
Sex ratios in slave-making ants have been posed as important test cases for the hypothesis that eusociality evolved via kin selection in insects. Trivers and Hare proposed that sex ratios in slave-makers should reflect the queen's interests whereas sex ratios in free-living host ants should reflect the workers' interests. We analyse patterns of allocation to males versus females, as well as allocation to growth versus reproduction for slave-making ants in the tribe Formicoxenini. We find little support for the hypothesis of exclusive queen control; instead, our results implicate queen–worker conflict in slave-making ants, both over male allocation ratios and over allocation to growth versus reproduction.
Animal groups can show consistent behaviors or personalities just like solitary animals. We studied the collective behavior of Temnothorax nylanderi ant colonies, including consistency in behavior and correlations between different behavioral traits. We focused on four collective behaviors (aggression against intruders, nest relocation, removal of infected corpses and nest reconstruction) and also tested for links to the immune defense level of a colony and a fitness component (per-capita productivity). Behaviors leading to an increased exposure of ants to micro-parasites were expected to be positively associated with immune defense measures and indeed colonies that often relocated to other nest sites showed increased immune defense levels. Besides, colonies that responded with low aggression to intruders or failed to remove infected corpses, showed a higher likelihood to move to a new nest site. This resembles the trade-off between aggression and relocation often observed in solitary animals. Finally, one of the behaviors, nest reconstruction, was positively linked to per-capita productivity, whereas other colony-level behaviors, such as aggression against intruders, showed no association, albeit all behaviors were expected to be important for fitness under field conditions. In summary, our study shows that ant societies exhibit complex personalities that can be associated to the physiology and fitness of the colony. Some of these behaviors are linked in suites of correlated behaviors, similar to personalities of solitary animals.
Protective ant-plant mutualisms that are exploited by non-defending parasitic ants represent prominent model systems for ecology and evolutionary biology. The mutualist Pseudomyrmex ferrugineus is an obligate plant-ant and fully depends on acacias for nesting space and food. The parasite Pseudomyrmex gracilis facultatively nests on acacias and uses host-derived food rewards but also external food sources. Integrative analyses of genetic microsatellite data, cuticular hydrocarbons and behavioral assays showed that an individual acacia might be inhabited by the workers of several P. gracilis queens, whereas one P. ferrugineus colony monopolizes one or more host trees. Despite these differences in social organization, neither of the species exhibited aggressive behavior among conspecific workers sharing a tree regardless of their relatedness. This lack of aggression corresponds to the high similarity of cuticular hydrocarbon profiles among ants living on the same tree. Host sharing by unrelated colonies, or the presence of several queens in a single colony are discussed as strategies by which parasite colonies could achieve the observed social organization. We argue that in ecological terms, the non-aggressive behavior of non-sibling P. gracilis workers — regardless of the route to achieve this social structure — enables this species to efficiently occupy and exploit a host plant. By contrast, single large and long-lived colonies of the mutualist P. ferrugineus monopolize individual host plants and defend them aggressively against invaders from other trees. Our findings highlight the necessity for using several methods in combination to fully understand how differing life history strategies affect social organization in ants.
Army ants are well known for their destructive raids of other ant colonies. Some known defensive strategies include nest evacuation, modification of nest architecture, blockade of nest entrances using rocks or debris, and direct combat outside the nest. Since army ants highly prefer Pheidole ants as prey in desert habitats, there may be strong selective pressure on Pheidole to evolve defensive strategies to better survive raids. In the case of P. obtusospinosa Pergande (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), the worker caste system includes super majors in addition to smaller majors and minor workers. Interestingly, P. obtusospinosa and the six other New World Pheidole species described to have polymorphic major workers are all found in the desert southwest and adjacent regions of Mexico, all co-occurring with various species of Neivamyrmex army ants. Pheidole obtusospinosa used a multi-phase defensive strategy against army ant raids that involved their largest major workers. During army ant attacks, these super majors were involved in blocking the nest entrance with their enlarged heads. This is the first description of defensive head-blocking by an ant species that lacks highly modified head morphology, such as a truncated or disc-shaped head. P. obtusospinosa super majors switched effectively between passive headblocking at the nest entrance and aggressive combat outside the nest. If this multi-phase strategy is found to be used by other Pheidole species with polymorphic majors in future studies, it is possible that selective pressure by army ant raids may have been partially responsible for the convergent evolution of this extra worker caste.
Neivamyrmex; nest defense; phragmosis; super soldier caste; worker polymorphism
Slave making ants of the Polyergus lucidus Mayr (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) complex enslave 3 different Formica species, Formica archboldi, F. dolosa, and F. pallidefalva, in northern Florida. This is the first record of presumed P. lucidus subspecies co-occurring with and enslaving multiple Formica hosts in the southern end of their range. The behavior, colony sizes, body sizes, nest architecture, and other natural history observations of Polyergus colonies and their Formica hosts are reported. The taxonomic and conservation implications of these observations are discussed.
body size; colony size; conservation; sociometry; taxonomy; Formica archboldi; Formica dolosa
Although it has always been assumed that chemical mimicry and camouflage play a major role in the penetration of ant societies by social parasites, this paper provides the first direct evidence for such a mechanism between the larvae of the parasitic butterfly Maculinea rebeli and its ant host Myrmica schencki. In the wild, freshly moulted fourth-instar caterpillars, which have no previous contact with ants, appear to be recognized as ant larvae by foraging Myrmica workers, which return them to their nest brood chambers. Three hypotheses concerning the mechanism controlling this behaviour were tested: (i) the caterpillars produce surface chemicals that allow them to be treated as ant larvae; (ii) mimetic compounds would include hydrocarbons similar to those employed by Myrmica to recognize conspecifics and brood; and (iii) the caterpillars' secretions would more closely mimic the profile of their main host in the wild, M. schencki, than that of other species of Myrmica. Results of behavioural bioassays and chemical analyses confirmed all three hypotheses, and explained the high degree of host specificity found in this type of highly specialized myrmecophile. Furthermore, although caterpillars biosynthesized many of the recognition pheromones of their host species (chemical mimicry), they later acquired additional hydrocarbons within the ant nest (chemical camouflage), making them near-perfect mimics of their individual host colony's odour.
Recent recordings of the stridulations of Myrmica ants revealed that their queens made distinctive sounds from their workers, although the acoustics of queens and workers, respectively, were the same in different species of Myrmica. Queen recordings induced enhanced protective behavior when played to workers in the one species tested. Larvae and pupae of the butterfly genus Maculinea inhabit Myrmica colonies as social parasites, and both stages generate sounds that mimic those of a Myrmica queen, inducing similar superior treatments from workers as their model. We discuss how initial penetration and acceptance as a colony member is achieved by Maculinea through mimicking the species-specific semio-chemicals of their hosts, and how acoustical mimicry is then employed to elevate the parasite’s membership of that society towards the highest attainable level in their host’s hierarchy. We postulate that, if acoustics is as well developed a means of communication in certain ants as these studies suggest, then others among an estimated 10,000 species of ant social parasite may supplement their well-known use of chemical and tactile mimicry to trick host ants with mimicry of host acoustical systems.
lycaenidae; myrmica; maculinea; phengaris; acoustic mimicry; stridulation
Ant colony mortality has not been sufficiently studied, even though it is crucial for understanding social insect population biology and can serve as an important model for general aging and mortality processes. Particularly, studies on proximate mechanisms on mortality and stress resistance of ant colonies are lacking. This study explores the long-term colony starvation resistance of the small myrmecine ant Temnothorax rugatulus. We report extraordinary starvation resistance in the 21 colonies investigated, as most survived the eight months of total starvation. Furthermore, we studied demographic and behavioral changes over the experimental period. Brood decline began first (after two months) and mortality was highest, worker decline was intermediate, and queen mortality started latest and remained lowest. We found brood (its relative change during the first four months and the level of brood relative to colony size) to be the only significant predictor of colony starvation resistance, but not the degree of polygyny. As expected, rates of trophallaxis increased during the starvation period while colony activity bouts occurred more frequently but were much shorter, leading to an overall decrease in activity levels. This study is the first to comprehensively study mechanisms of starvation resistance in ant colonies, linking demography and behavior.
Activity cycles; adaptive demography; mortality; starvation stress; superorganism
Due to their prowess in interspecific competition and ability to catch a wide range of arthropod prey (mostly termites with which they are engaged in an evolutionary arms race), ants are recognized as a good model for studying the chemicals involved in defensive and predatory behaviors. Ants' wide diversity of nesting habits and relationships with plants and prey types implies that these chemicals are also very diverse. Using the African myrmicine ant Crematogaster striatula as our focal species, we adopted a three-pronged research approach. We studied the aggressive and predatory behaviors of the ant workers, conducted bioassays on the effect of their Dufour gland contents on termites, and analyzed these contents. (1) The workers defend themselves or eliminate termites by orienting their abdominal tip toward the opponent, stinger protruded. The chemicals emitted, apparently volatile, trigger the recruitment of nestmates situated in the vicinity and act without the stinger having to come into direct contact with the opponent. Whereas alien ants competing with C. striatula for sugary food sources are repelled by this behavior and retreat further and further away, termites defend their nest whatever the danger. They face down C. striatula workers and end up by rolling onto their backs, their legs batting the air. (2) The bioassays showed that the toxicity of the Dufour gland contents acts in a time-dependent manner, leading to the irreversible paralysis, and, ultimately, death of the termites. (3) Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analyses showed that the Dufour gland contains a mixture of mono- or polyunsaturated long-chain derivatives, bearing functional groups like oxo-alcohols or oxo-acetates. Electrospray ionization-mass spectrometry showed the presence of a molecule of 1584 Da that might be a large, acetylated alkaloid capable of splitting into smaller molecules that could be responsible for the final degree of venom toxicity.
Leaf-cutting ants are well known for their highly complex social organization, which provides them with a strong defense against parasites invading their colonies. Besides this attribute, these insects have morphological, physiological and structural characteristics further reinforcing the defense of their colonies. With the discovery of symbiotic bacteria present on the integument of leaf-cutting ants, a new line of defense was proposed and considered to be specific for the control of a specialized fungal parasite of the ants’ fungus gardens (Escovopsis). However, recent studies have questioned the specificity of the integumental bacteria, as they were also found to inhibit a range of fungi, including entomopathogens. The microbiota associated with the leaf-cutting ant gardens has also been proposed as another level of chemical defense, protecting the garden from parasite invasion. Here we review the chemical defense weaponry deployed by leaf-cutting ants against parasites of their fungus gardens and of the ants themselves.
insect; ant; attine; bacteria; fungus; symbiosis; parasite; pathogen; antibiotics
Host–parasite associations are potentially shaped by evolutionary reciprocal selection dynamics, in which parasites evolve to overcome host defences and hosts are selected to counteract these through the evolution of new defences. This is expected to result in variation in parasite-defence interactions, and the evolution of resistant parasites causing increased virulence. Fungus-growing ants maintain antibiotic-producing Pseudonocardia (Actinobacteria) that aid in protection against specialized parasites of the ants’ fungal gardens, and current evidence indicates that both symbionts have been associated with the ants for millions of years. Here we examine the extent of variation in the defensive capabilities of the ant–actinobacterial association against Escovopsis (parasite-defence interactions), and evaluate how variation impacts colonies of fungus-growing ants. We focus on five species of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants, crossing 12 strains of Pseudonocardia with 12 strains of Escovopsis in a Petri plate bioassay experiment, and subsequently conduct subcolony infection experiments using resistant and non-resistant parasite strains. Diversity in parasite-defence interactions, including pairings where the parasites are resistant, suggests that chemical variation in the antibiotics produced by different actinobacterial strains are responsible for the observed variation in parasite susceptibility. By evaluating the role this variation plays during infection, we show that infection of ant subcolonies with resistant parasite strains results in significantly higher parasite-induced morbidity with respect to garden biomass loss. Our findings thus further establish the role of Pseudonocardia-derived antibiotics in helping defend the ants’ fungus garden from the parasite Escovopsis, and provide evidence that small molecules can play important roles as antibiotics in a natural system.
The colony defense behavior of the wasp Mischocyttarus cerberus Richards (Hymenoptera, Vespidae) was studied to verify whether there were different reactions of wasps of different ages and hierarchical positions during attacks of ants. Detailed nest mapping was first performed, then the wasps were marked and were divided in four distinct categories: queens, older workers, younger workers and males. Tests were made simulating attacks of ants in the nests. The main results showed that the M. cerberus behaviors against ant attacks is more related to the age of the wasps than to their hierarchical position. The oldest wasps (queens and older workers) defend the nest more than the younger workers and males, representing a form of temporal polyethism.
ethology; hierarchical position; age polyethism
Flexibility in task performance is essential for a robust system of division of labour. We investigated what factors determine which social insect workers respond to colony-level changes in task demand. We used radio-frequency identification technology to compare the roles of corpulence, age, spatial location and previous activity (intra-nest/extra-nest) in determining whether worker ants (Temnothorax albipennis) respond to an increase in demand for foraging or brood care. The less corpulent ants took on the extra foraging, irrespective of their age, previous activity or location in the nest, supporting a physiological threshold model. We found no relationship between ants that tended the extra brood and corpulence, age, spatial location or previous activity, but ants that transported the extra brood to the main brood pile were less corpulent and had high previous intra-nest activity. This supports spatial task-encounter and physiological threshold models for brood transport. Our data suggest a flexible task-allocation system allowing the colony to respond rapidly to changing needs, using a simple task-encounter system for generalized tasks, combined with physiologically based response thresholds for more specialized tasks. This could provide a social insect colony with a robust division of labour, flexibly allocating the workforce in response to current needs.
division of labour; task allocation; foraging; brood care; social insects; radio-frequency identification
Larvae of the syrphid fly Microdon mutabilis are social parasites which live up to two years, feeding on ant brood in nests of Formica lemani ants. We questioned why M. mutabilis is extremely localized when its host is widespread and abundant. Like endoparasitic diseases, social parasites must penetrate formidable defences before 'infecting' their hosts. This occurs during the egg stage of M. mutabilis: females are sedentary and oviposit at F. lemani nest entrances, which workers treat as part of their nest, leaving the thin-shelled eggs vulnerable to attack for 10 to 14 days before hatching. We describe experiments which show a strong maternal effect in M. mutabilis. New-laid eggs had > 95% survival when introduced to the individual ant colony that reared each mother fly or to its close neighbours, but survival declined as a sigmoidal logistic function of distance from the mother nest, with F. lemani colonies from 2 and 30 km away killing 80 and > 99% of eggs, respectively, within 24 h. Attacks on eggs also increased in proportion to the delay before introduction to laboratory nests. We suggest that they may be coated with a mimetic chemical disguise that lasts for three to four days after oviposition. The results indicate extreme local adaptation by an M. mutabilis population not simply to one species of host, but to an individual host population and possibly to local strains or family groups within an F. lemani population. This conclusion is discussed in terms of virulence, transmission and coevolution in parasitic diseases.
Understanding which parties regulate reproduction is fundamental to understanding conflict resolution in animal societies. In social insects, workers can influence male production and sex ratio. Surprisingly, few studies have investigated worker influence over which queen(s) reproduce(s) in multiple queen (MQ) colonies (skew), despite skew determining worker-brood relatedness and so worker fitness. We provide evidence for worker influence over skew in a functionally monogynous population of the ant Leptothorax acervorum. Observations of MQ colonies leading up to egg laying showed worker aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour towards queens and predicted which queen monopolized reproduction. In contrast, among-queen interactions were rare and did not predict queen reproduction. Furthermore, parentage analysis showed workers favoured their mother when present, ensuring closely related fullsibs (average r = 0.5) were reared instead of less related offspring of other resident queens (r ≤ 0.375). Discrimination among queens using relatedness-based cues, however, seems unlikely as workers also biased their behaviour in colonies without a mother queen. In other polygynous populations of this species, workers are not aggressive towards queens and MQs reproduce, showing the outcome of social conflicts varies within species. In conclusion, this study supports non-reproductive parties having the power and information to influence skew within cooperative breeding groups.
multiple queen colony; skew; social evolution; conflict resolution; policing
Parasites that manipulate host behavior can provide prominent examples of extended phenotypes: parasite genomes controlling host behavior. Here we focus on one of the most dramatic examples of behavioral manipulation, the death grip of ants infected by Ophiocordyceps fungi. We studied the interaction between O. unilateralis s.l. and its host ant Camponotus leonardi in a Thai rainforest, where infected ants descend from their canopy nests down to understory vegetation to bite into abaxial leaf veins before dying. Host mortality is concentrated in patches (graveyards) where ants die on sapling leaves ca. 25 cm above the soil surface where conditions for parasite development are optimal. Here we address whether the sequence of ant behaviors leading to the final death grip can also be interpreted as parasite adaptations and describe some of the morphological changes inside the heads of infected workers that mediate the expression of the death grip phenotype.
We found that infected ants behave as zombies and display predictable stereotypical behaviors of random rather than directional walking, and of repeated convulsions that make them fall down and thus precludes returning to the canopy. Transitions from erratic wandering to death grips on a leaf vein were abrupt and synchronized around solar noon. We show that the mandibles of ants penetrate deeply into vein tissue and that this is accompanied by extensive atrophy of the mandibular muscles. This lock-jaw means the ant will remain attached to the leaf after death. We further present histological data to show that a high density of single celled stages of the parasite within the head capsule of dying ants are likely to be responsible for this muscular atrophy.
Extended phenotypes in ants induced by fungal infections are a complex example of behavioral manipulation requiring coordinated changes of host behavior and morphology. Future work should address the genetic basis of such extended phenotypes.
extended phenotype; behavioral manipulation; ants; fungi; convergent evolution; parasites
Previous work has shown that leaf-cutting ants prefer to cut leaf material with relatively low fungal endophyte content. This preference suggests that fungal endophytes exact a cost on the ants or on the development of their colonies. We hypothesized that endophytes may play a role in their host plants’ defense against leaf-cutting ants. To measure the long-term cost to the ant colony of fungal endophytes in their forage material, we conducted a 20-week laboratory experiment to measure fungal garden development for colonies that foraged on leaves with low or high endophyte content.
Colony mass and the fungal garden dry mass did not differ significantly between the low and high endophyte feeding treatments. There was, however, a marginally significant trend toward greater mass of fungal garden per ant worker in the low relative to the high endophyte treatment. This trend was driven by differences in the fungal garden mass per worker from the earliest samples, when leaf-cutting ants had been foraging on low or high endophyte leaf material for only 2 weeks. At two weeks of foraging, the mean fungal garden mass per worker was 77% greater for colonies foraging on leaves with low relative to high endophyte loads.
Our data suggest that the cost of endophyte presence in ant forage material may be greatest to fungal colony development in its earliest stages, when there are few workers available to forage and to clean leaf material. This coincides with a period of high mortality for incipient colonies in the field. We discuss how the endophyte-leaf-cutter ant interaction may parallel constitutive defenses in plants, whereby endophytes reduce the rate of colony development when its risk of mortality is greatest.
Atta colombica; Attini; Leaf-cutting ants; Lepiotaceae; Mutualism; Symbioses
Social insects offer unique opportunities to test predictions regarding the evolution of cooperation, life histories and communication. Colony founding by groups of unrelated queens, some of which are later killed, may select for selfish reproductive strategies, honest signalling and punishment. Here, we use a brood transfer experiment to test whether cofounding queens of the ant Lasius niger ‘selfishly’ adjust their productivity when sharing the nest with future competitors. We simultaneously analysed queen cuticular hydrocarbon (CHC) profiles to investigate whether queens honestly signal their reproductive output or produce dishonest, manipulative signals, providing a novel test of the evolutionary significance of queen pheromones. Queens produced fewer workers when their colony contained ample brood, but only in the presence of competitors, suggesting selfish conservation of resources. Several CHCs correlated with reproductive maturation, and to a lesser extent with productivity; the same hydrocarbons were more abundant on queens that were not killed, suggesting that workers select productive queens using these chemical cues. Our results highlight the role of honest signalling in the evolution of cooperation: whenever cheaters can be reliably identified, they may incur sanctions that reduce the incentive to be selfish.
social insect; queen pheromone; trade-off; cooperation; coercion; sanctions