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1.  Collective defence portfolios of ant hosts shift with social parasite pressure 
Host defences become increasingly costly as parasites breach successive lines of defence. Because selection favours hosts that successfully resist parasitism at the lowest possible cost, escalating coevolutionary arms races are likely to drive host defence portfolios towards ever more expensive strategies. We investigated the interplay between host defence portfolios and social parasite pressure by comparing 17 populations of two Temnothorax ant species. When successful, collective aggression not only prevents parasitation but also spares host colonies the cost of searching for and moving to a new nest site. However, once parasites breach the host's nest defence, host colonies should resort to flight as the more beneficial resistance strategy. We show that under low parasite pressure, host colonies more likely responded to an intruding Protomognathus americanus slavemaker with collective aggression, which prevented the slavemaker from escaping and potentially recruiting nest-mates. However, as parasite pressure increased, ant colonies of both host species became more likely to flee rather than to fight. We conclude that host defence portfolios shift consistently with social parasite pressure, which is in accordance with the degeneration of frontline defences and the evolution of subsequent anti-parasite strategies often invoked in hosts of brood parasites.
PMCID: PMC4132669  PMID: 25100690
host–parasite interaction; defence portfolios; brood parasites; social insects; frontline defences
2.  Fitness costs of worker specialization for ant societies 
Division of labour is of fundamental importance for the success of societies, yet little is known about how individual specialization affects the fitness of the group as a whole. While specialized workers may be more efficient in the tasks they perform than generalists, they may also lack the flexibility to respond to rapid shifts in task needs. Such rigidity could impose fitness costs when societies face dynamic and unpredictable events, such as an attack by socially parasitic slavemakers. Here, we experimentally assess the colony-level fitness consequences of behavioural specialization in Temnothorax longispinosus ants that are attacked by the slavemaker ant T. americanus. We manipulated the social organization of 102 T. longispinosus colonies, based on the behavioural responses of all 3842 workers. We find that strict specialization is disadvantageous for a colony's annual reproduction and growth during slave raids. These fitness costs may favour generalist strategies in dynamic environments, as we also demonstrate that societies exposed to slavemakers in the field show a lower degree of specialization than those originating from slavemaker-free populations. Our findings provide an explanation for the ubiquity of generalists and highlight their importance for the flexibility and functional robustness of entire societies.
PMCID: PMC4721103  PMID: 26763706
behavioural specialization; division of labour; dynamic conditions; colony fitness; social insects; slavemaker ants
3.  Raiders from the sky: slavemaker founding queens select for aggressive host colonies 
Biology Letters  2012;8(5):748-750.
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.
PMCID: PMC3441009  PMID: 22809720
parasite; personality; dispersal; aggression; fitness
4.  Role of early experience in ant enslavement: a comparative analysis of a host and a non-host species 
Frontiers in Zoology  2005;2:13.
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.
PMCID: PMC1199612  PMID: 16076389
5.  Do host species evolve a specific response to slave-making ants? 
Frontiers in Zoology  2012;9:38.
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.
PMCID: PMC3551654  PMID: 23276325
Coevolution; Formicidae; Social recognition; Social parasitism; Temnothorax
6.  Discriminatory abilities of facultative slave-making ants and their slaves 
Insectes Sociaux  2016;63(4):507-517.
Intra-colony odor variability can disturb ants’ ability to discriminate against intruders. The evolutionary relevance of this phenomenon can be revealed by studies on colonies of slave-making ants in which the parasite, and not the host, is subject to selection pressures associated with living in a mixed colony. We examined how the European facultative slave-making species Formica sanguinea and its F. fusca slaves perform in discriminating ants from alien colonies. Results of behavioral assays showed that slave-maker ants respond with hostility to conspecific individuals from alien colonies but are relatively tolerant to alien slaves. Furthermore, the behavior of slaves indicated a limited ability to discriminate ants from alien parasitic colonies. The subdivision of colony fragments into mixed and species-separated groups demonstrated that contact with the parasite is necessary for F. fusca slaves to be re-accepted by former nestmates after a period of separation from the stock colony. The results presented in this paper are consistent with the following hypotheses: (1) F. sanguinea ants, as opposed to their slaves, are adapted to discriminate alien individuals in the conditions of odor variability found in a mixed-species colony, (2) the recognition of slaves by F. sanguinea ants involves a dedicated adaptive mechanism that prevents aggression toward them, (3) the odor of slaves is strongly influenced by the parasite with beneficial effect on the colony integrity.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00040-016-0493-z) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC5052306  PMID: 27773941
Ants; Nestmate recognition; Slave-making; Social parasitism
7.  Similar evolutionary potentials in an obligate ant parasite and its two host species 
Journal of Evolutionary Biology  2011;24(4):871-886.
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.
PMCID: PMC3085125  PMID: 21324025
GST; host–parasite coevolution; Jost D; maximum likelihood methods; population genetics; social insects
8.  Spatial structure and nest demography reveal the influence of competition, parasitism and habitat quality on slavemaking ants and their hosts 
BMC Ecology  2011;11:9.
Natural communities are structured by intra-guild competition, predation or parasitism and the abiotic environment. We studied the relative importance of these factors in two host-social parasite ecosystems in three ant communities in Europe (Bavaria) and North America (New York, West Virginia). We tested how these factors affect colony demography, life-history and the spatial pattern of colonies, using a large sample size of more than 1000 colonies. The strength of competition was measured by the distance to the nearest competitor. Distance to the closest social parasite colony was used as a measure of parasitism risk. Nest sites (i.e., sticks or acorns) are limited in these forest ecosystems and we therefore included nest site quality as an abiotic factor in the analysis. In contrast to previous studies based on local densities, we focus here on the positioning and spatial patterns and we use models to compare our predictions to random expectations.
Colony demography was universally affected by the size of the nest site with larger and more productive colonies residing in larger nest sites of higher quality. Distance to the nearest competitor negatively influenced host demography and brood production in the Bavarian community, pointing to an important role of competition, while social parasitism was less influential in this community. The New York community was characterized by the highest habitat variability, and productive colonies were clustered in sites of higher quality. Colonies were clumped on finer spatial scales, when we considered only the nearest neighbors, but more regularly distributed on coarser scales. The analysis of spatial positioning within plots often produced different results compared to those based on colony densities. For example, while host and slavemaker densities are often positively correlated, slavemakers do not nest closer to potential host colonies than expected by random.
The three communities are differently affected by biotic and abiotic factors. Some of the differences can be attributed to habitat differences and some to differences between the two slavemaking-host ecosystems. The strong effect of competition in the Bavarian community points to the scarcity of resources in this uniform habitat compared to the other more diverse sites. The decrease in colony aggregation with scale indicates fine-scale resource hotspots: colonies are locally aggregated in small groups. Our study demonstrates that species relationships vary across scales and spatial patterns can provide important insights into species interactions. These results could not have been obtained with analyses based on local densities alone. Previous studies focused on social parasitism and its effect on host colonies. The broader approach taken here, considering several possible factors affecting colony demography and not testing each one in isolation, shows that competition and environmental variability can have a similar strong impact on demography and life-history of hosts. We conclude that the effects of parasites or predators should be studied in parallel to other ecological influences.
PMCID: PMC3078833  PMID: 21443778
9.  The Effect of Social Parasitism by Polyergus breviceps on the Nestmate Recognition System of Its Host, Formica altipetens 
PLoS ONE  2016;11(2):e0147498.
Highly social ants, bees and wasps employ sophisticated recognition systems to identify colony members and deny foreign individuals access to their nest. For ants, cuticular hydrocarbons serve as the labels used to ascertain nest membership. Social parasites, however, are capable of breaking the recognition code so that they can thrive unopposed within the colonies of their hosts. Here we examine the influence of the socially parasitic slave-making ant, Polyergus breviceps on the nestmate recognition system of its slaves, Formica altipetens. We compared the chemical, genetic, and behavioral characteristics of colonies of enslaved and free-living F. altipetens. We found that enslaved Formica colonies were more genetically and chemically diverse than their free-living counterparts. These differences are likely caused by the hallmark of slave-making ant ecology: seasonal raids in which pupa are stolen from several adjacent host colonies. The different social environments of enslaved and free-living Formica appear to affect their recognition behaviors: enslaved Formica workers were less aggressive towards non-nestmates than were free-living Formica. Our findings indicate that parasitism by P. breviceps dramatically alters both the chemical and genetic context in which their kidnapped hosts develop, leading to changes in how they recognize nestmates.
PMCID: PMC4740506  PMID: 26840394
10.  Coevolution in host-parasite systems: behavioural strategies of slave-making ants and their hosts. 
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.
PMCID: PMC1088719  PMID: 11375101
11.  Blending in with the crowd: social parasites integrate into their host colonies using a flexible chemical signature. 
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.
PMCID: PMC1691110  PMID: 12350253
12.  Multi-Phase Defense by the Big-Headed Ant, Pheidole obtusospinosa, Against Raiding Army 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.
PMCID: PMC3014660  PMID: 20569122
Neivamyrmex; nest defense; phragmosis; super soldier caste; worker polymorphism
13.  A Specialist Herbivore Uses Chemical Camouflage to Overcome the Defenses of an Ant-Plant Mutualism 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(7):e102604.
Many plants and ants engage in mutualisms where plants provide food and shelter to the ants in exchange for protection against herbivores and competitors. Although several species of herbivores thwart ant defenses and extract resources from the plants, the mechanisms that allow these herbivores to avoid attack are poorly understood. The specialist insect herbivore, Piezogaster reclusus (Hemiptera: Coreidae), feeds on Neotropical bull-horn acacias (Vachellia collinsii) despite the presence of Pseudomyrmex spinicola ants that nest in and aggressively defend the trees. We tested three hypotheses for how P. reclusus feeds on V. collinsii while avoiding ant attack: (1) chemical camouflage via cuticular surface compounds, (2) chemical deterrence via metathoracic defense glands, and (3) behavioral traits that reduce ant detection or attack. Our results showed that compounds from both P. reclusus cuticles and metathoracic glands reduce the number of ant attacks, but only cuticular compounds appear to be essential in allowing P. reclusus to feed on bull-horn acacia trees undisturbed. In addition, we found that ant attack rates to P. reclusus increased significantly when individuals were transferred between P. spinicola ant colonies. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that chemical mimicry of colony-specific ant or host plant odors plays a key role in allowing P. reclusus to circumvent ant defenses and gain access to important resources, including food and possibly enemy-free space. This interaction between ants, acacias, and their herbivores provides an excellent example of the ability of herbivores to adapt to ant defenses of plants and suggests that herbivores may play an important role in the evolution and maintenance of mutualisms.
PMCID: PMC4105532  PMID: 25047551
14.  The parasite's long arm: a tapeworm parasite induces behavioural changes in uninfected group members of its social host 
Parasites can induce alterations in host phenotypes in order to enhance their own survival and transmission. Parasites of social insects might not only benefit from altering their individual hosts, but also from inducing changes in uninfected group members. Temnothorax nylanderi ant workers infected with the tapeworm Anomotaenia brevis are known to be chemically distinct from nest-mates and do not contribute to colony fitness, but are tolerated in their colonies and well cared for. Here, we investigated how tapeworm- infected workers affect colony aggression by manipulating their presence in ant colonies and analysing whether their absence or presence resulted in behavioural alterations in their nest-mates. We report a parasite-induced shift in colony aggression, shown by lower aggression of uninfected nest-mates from parasitized colonies towards conspecifics, potentially explaining the tolerance towards infected ants. We also demonstrate that tapeworm-infected workers showed a reduced flight response and higher survival, while their presence caused a decrease in survival of uninfected nest-mates. This anomalous behaviour of infected ants, coupled with their increased survival, could facilitate the parasites' transmission to its definitive hosts, woodpeckers. We conclude that parasites exploiting individuals that are part of a society not only induce phenotypic changes within their individual hosts, but in uninfected group members as well.
PMCID: PMC4685803  PMID: 26582019
parasite-induced alterations; extended phenotype; survival; aggression; recognition; social insects
15.  Recognition in a Social Symbiosis: Chemical Phenotypes and Nestmate Recognition Behaviors of Neotropical Parabiotic Ants 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(2):e56492.
Social organisms rank among the most abundant and ecologically dominant species on Earth, in part due to exclusive recognition systems that allow cooperators to be distinguished from exploiters. Exploiters, such as social parasites, manipulate their hosts’ recognition systems, whereas cooperators are expected to minimize interference with their partner’s recognition abilities. Despite our wealth of knowledge about recognition in single-species social nests, less is known of the recognition systems in multi-species nests, particularly involving cooperators. One uncommon type of nesting symbiosis, called parabiosis, involves two species of ants sharing a nest and foraging trails in ostensible cooperation. Here, we investigated recognition cues (cuticular hydrocarbons) and recognition behaviors in the parabiotic mixed-species ant nests of Camponotus femoratus and Crematogaster levior in North-Eastern Amazonia. We found two sympatric, cryptic Cr. levior chemotypes in the population, with one type in each parabiotic colony. Although they share a nest, very few hydrocarbons were shared between Ca. femoratus and either Cr. levior chemotype. The Ca. femoratus hydrocarbons were also unusually long–chained branched alkenes and dienes, compounds not commonly found amongst ants. Despite minimal overlap in hydrocarbon profile, there was evidence of potential interspecific nestmate recognition –Cr. levior ants were more aggressive toward Ca. femoratus non-nestmates than Ca. femoratus nestmates. In contrast to the prediction that sharing a nest could weaken conspecific recognition, each parabiotic species also maintains its own aggressive recognition behaviors to exclude conspecific non-nestmates. This suggests that, despite cohabitation, parabiotic ants maintain their own species-specific colony odors and recognition mechanisms. It is possible that such social symbioses are enabled by the two species each using their own separate recognition cues, and that interspecific nestmate recognition may enable this multi-species cooperative nesting.
PMCID: PMC3579830  PMID: 23451053
16.  Testing the adjustable threshold model for intruder recognition on Myrmica ants in the context of a social parasite 
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.
PMCID: PMC3234545  PMID: 21715405
aggression; defence; social parasite; Maculinea
17.  Social Transfer of Pathogenic Fungus Promotes Active Immunisation in Ant Colonies 
PLoS Biology  2012;10(4):e1001300.
Social contact with fungus-exposed ants leads to pathogen transfer to healthy nest-mates, causing low-level infections. These micro-infections promote pathogen-specific immune gene expression and protective immunization of nest-mates.
Due to the omnipresent risk of epidemics, insect societies have evolved sophisticated disease defences at the individual and colony level. An intriguing yet little understood phenomenon is that social contact to pathogen-exposed individuals reduces susceptibility of previously naive nestmates to this pathogen. We tested whether such social immunisation in Lasius ants against the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae is based on active upregulation of the immune system of nestmates following contact to an infectious individual or passive protection via transfer of immune effectors among group members—that is, active versus passive immunisation. We found no evidence for involvement of passive immunisation via transfer of antimicrobials among colony members. Instead, intensive allogrooming behaviour between naive and pathogen-exposed ants before fungal conidia firmly attached to their cuticle suggested passage of the pathogen from the exposed individuals to their nestmates. By tracing fluorescence-labelled conidia we indeed detected frequent pathogen transfer to the nestmates, where they caused low-level infections as revealed by growth of small numbers of fungal colony forming units from their dissected body content. These infections rarely led to death, but instead promoted an enhanced ability to inhibit fungal growth and an active upregulation of immune genes involved in antifungal defences (defensin and prophenoloxidase, PPO). Contrarily, there was no upregulation of the gene cathepsin L, which is associated with antibacterial and antiviral defences, and we found no increased antibacterial activity of nestmates of fungus-exposed ants. This indicates that social immunisation after fungal exposure is specific, similar to recent findings for individual-level immune priming in invertebrates. Epidemiological modeling further suggests that active social immunisation is adaptive, as it leads to faster elimination of the disease and lower death rates than passive immunisation. Interestingly, humans have also utilised the protective effect of low-level infections to fight smallpox by intentional transfer of low pathogen doses (“variolation” or “inoculation”).
Author Summary
Close social contact facilitates pathogen transmission in societies, often causing epidemics. In contrast to this, we show that limited transmission of a fungal pathogen in ant colonies can be beneficial for the host, because it promotes “social immunisation” of healthy group members. We found that ants exposed to the fungus are heavily groomed by their healthy nestmates. Grooming removes a significant number of fungal conidiospores from the body surface of exposed ants and reduces their risk of falling sick. At the same time, previously healthy nestmates are themselves exposed to a small number of conidiospores, triggering low-level infections. These micro-infections are not deadly, but result in upregulated expression of a specific set of immune genes and pathogen-specific protective immune stimulation. Pathogen transfer by social interactions is therefore the underlying mechanism of social immunisation against fungal infections in ant societies. There is a similarity between such natural social immunisation and human efforts to induce immunity against deadly diseases, such as smallpox. Before vaccination with dead or attenuated strains was invented, immunity in human societies was induced by actively transferring low-level infections (“variolation”), just like in ants.
PMCID: PMC3317912  PMID: 22509134
18.  Specific recognition of reproductive parasite workers by nest-entrance guards in the bumble bee Bombus terrestris 
Frontiers in Zoology  2013;10:74.
The impact of social parasites on their hosts’ fitness is a strong selective pressure that can lead to the evolution of adapted defence strategies. Guarding the nest to prevent the intrusion of parasites is a widespread response of host species. If absolute rejection of strangers provides the best protection against parasites, more fine-tuned strategies can prove more adaptive. Guarding is indeed costly and not all strangers constitute a real threat. That is particularly true for worker reproductive parasitism in social insects since only a fraction of non-nestmate visitors, the fertile ones, can readily engage in parasitic reproduction. Guards should thus be more restrictive towards fertile than sterile non-nestmate workers. We here tested this hypothesis by examining the reaction of nest-entrance guards towards nestmate and non-nestmate workers with varying fertility levels in the bumble bee Bombus terrestris. Because social recognition in social insects mainly relies on cuticular lipids (CLs), chemical analysis was also conducted to examine whether workers’ CLs could convey the relevant information upon which guards could base their decision. We thus aimed to determine whether an adapted defensive strategy to worker reproductive parasitism has evolved in B. terrestris colonies.
Chemical analysis revealed that the cuticular chemical profiles of workers encode information about both their colony membership and their current fertility, therefore providing potential recognition cues for a suitable adjustment of the guards’ defensive decisions. We found that guards were similarly tolerant towards sterile non-nestmate workers than towards nestmate workers. However, as predicted, guards responded more aggressively towards fertile non-nestmates.
Our results show that B. terrestris guards discriminate non-nestmates that differ in their reproductive potential and respond more strongly to the individuals that are a greatest threat for the colony. Cuticular hydrocarbons are the probable cues underlying the specific recognition of reproductive parasites, with the specific profile of highly fertile bees eliciting the agonistic response when combined with non-colony membership information. Our study therefore provides a first piece of empirical evidence supporting the hypothesis that an adapted defensive strategy against worker reproductive parasitism exists in B. terrestris colonies.
PMCID: PMC3878879  PMID: 24321042
Intraspecific social parasitism; Guarding behaviour; Honey bee; Social recognition; Defence strategy; Polistes; Coevolution; Drifting
19.  Temnothorax pilagens sp. n. – a new slave-making species of the tribe Formicoxenini from North America (Hymenoptera, Formicidae) 
ZooKeys  2014;65-77.
A new species of the ant genus Temnothorax Forel, 1890 – Temnothorax pilagens sp. n. is described from eastern North America. T. pilagens sp. n. is an obligate slave-making ant with two known hosts: T. longispinosus (Roger, 1863) and T. ambiguus (Emery, 1895). A differential diagnosis against Temnothorax duloticus (Wesson, 1937), the other dulotic congener from the Nearctic, is presented and a biological characteristics of the new species is given.
PMCID: PMC3904070  PMID: 24478583
Temnothorax; Nearctic region; dulosis; slave-raiding behavior; morphometrics
20.  Do well-integrated species of an inquiline community have a lower brood predation tendency? A test using red wood ant myrmecophiles 
A host infected with multiple parasitic species provides a unique system to test evolutionary and ecological hypotheses. Different parasitic species associated with a single host are expected to occupy different niches. This niche specialization can evolve from intraguild competition among parasites. However, niche specialization can also be structured directly by the host when its defence strategy depends on the parasite’s potential impact. Then it can be expected that species with low or no tendency to prey on host brood will elicit less aggression than severe brood parasitic species and will be able to integrate better in the host system.
We examined this hypothesis in a large community of symbionts associated with European red wood ants (Formica rufa group) by testing the association between 1) level of symbiont integration (i.e. presence in dense brood chambers vs. less populated chambers without brood) 2) level of ant aggression towards the symbiont 3) brood predation tendency of the symbiont.
Symbionts differed vastly in integration level and we demonstrated for the first time that relatively unspecialized ant symbionts or myrmecophiles occur preferentially in brood chambers. Based on their integration level, we categorize the tested myrmecophiles into three categories: 1) species attracted to the dense brood chambers 2) species rarely or never present in the brood chambers 3) species randomly distributed throughout the nest. The associates varied greatly in brood predation tendency and in aggression elicited. However, we did not find a correlation for the whole myrmecophile community between a) brood predation tendency and host’s aggression b) integration level and host’s aggression c) integration level and brood predation tendency.
Our results indicate that red wood ants did not act more hostile towards species that have a high tendency to prey on brood compared to species that are less likely or do not prey on brood. We show that potentially harmful parasites can penetrate into the deepest parts of a social insect fortress. We discuss these seemingly paradoxical findings in relation to models on coevolution and evolutionary arms races and list factors which can make the presence of potentially harmful parasites within the brood chambers evolutionary stable.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12862-016-0583-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4717668  PMID: 26781178
Ant guests; Co-infection; Formica rufa; Niche partitioning; Parasite; Virulence; Co-evolution; Plastic defence
21.  Host Plant Use by Competing Acacia-Ants: Mutualists Monopolize While Parasites Share Hosts 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e37691.
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.
PMCID: PMC3360759  PMID: 22662191
22.  Characterizing the Collective Personality of Ant Societies: Aggressive Colonies Do Not Abandon Their Home 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(3):e33314.
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.
PMCID: PMC3310061  PMID: 22457751
23.  Social Structure and Genetic Distance Mediate Nestmate Recognition and Aggressiveness in the Facultative Polygynous Ant Pheidole pallidula 
PLoS ONE  2016;11(5):e0156440.
In social insects, the evolutionary stability of cooperation depends on the privileged relationships between individuals of the social group, which is facilitated by the recognition of relatives. Nestmate recognition is based on genetically determined cues and/or environmentally derived chemical components present on the cuticle of individuals. Here, we studied nestmate recognition in the ant Pheidole pallidula, a species where both single-queen (monogyne) and multiple-queen (polygyne) colonies co-occur in the same population. We combined geographical, genetic and chemical analyses to disentangle the factors influencing the level of intraspecific aggressiveness. We show that encounters between workers from neighbouring colonies (i.e., nests less than 5 m away) are on average less aggressive than those between workers from more distant colonies. Aggressive behaviour is associated with the level of genetic difference: workers from monogyne colonies are more aggressive than workers from polygyne colonies, and the intensity of aggressiveness is positively associated with the genetic distance between colonies. Since the genetic distance is correlated with the spatial distance between pairs of colonies, the lower level of aggression toward neighbours may result from their higher relatedness. In contrast, the analysis of overall cuticular hydrocarbon profiles shows that aggressive behaviour is associated neither with the chemical diversity of colonies, nor with the chemical distances between them. When considering methyl-branched alkanes only, however, chemical distances differed between monogyne and polygyne colonies and were significantly associated with aggressiveness. Altogether, these results show that the social structure of colonies and the genetic distances between colonies are two major factors influencing the intensity of agonistic behaviours in the ant P. pallidula.
PMCID: PMC4886963  PMID: 27243627
24.  Multiple Convergent Origins of Workerlessness and Inbreeding in the Socially Parasitic Ant Genus Myrmoxenus 
PLoS ONE  2015;10(7):e0131023.
The socially parasitic ant genus Myrmoxenus varies strongly in fundamental life history traits, such as queen-worker ratio, the timing of sexual production, and mating behavior. Myrmoxenus queens generally take over nests of Temnothorax ants, kill the resident queen by throttling, and force the workers to take care of the social parasite’s brood. Young queens of M. ravouxi and other species produce large numbers of workers, which during “slave-raids” pillage host pupae from neighboring Temnothorax colonies to increase the workforce in their own nests. Other species, such as M. corsicus, have lost caste polyphenism and rear only male and female sexual offspring. Using sequences of the genes CO I / CO II and wingless we reconstruct the phylogeny of Myrmoxenus and document that the worker caste was lost convergently at least three times. Furthermore, mating in the nest and inbreeding obviously also evolved in parallel from ancestors whose sexuals presumably mated during nuptial flights. Myrmoxenus might thus provide a suitable model to investigate caste differentiation and the plasticity of mating behavior in Hymenoptera.
PMCID: PMC4519230  PMID: 26221735
25.  Deciphering the Chemical Basis of Nestmate Recognition 
Journal of Chemical Ecology  2010;36(7):751-758.
Social insects maintain colony cohesion by recognizing and, if necessary, discriminating against conspecifics that are not part of the colony. This recognition ability is encoded by a complex mixture of cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs), although it is largely unclear how social insects interpret such a multifaceted signal. CHC profiles often contain several series of homologous hydrocarbons, possessing the same methyl branch position but differing in chain length (e.g., 15-methyl-pentatriacontane, 15-methyl-heptatriacontane, 15-methyl-nonatriacontane). Recent studies have revealed that within species these homologs can occur in correlated concentrations. In such cases, single compounds may convey the same information as the homologs. In this study, we used behavioral bioassays to explore how social insects perceive and interpret different hydrocarbons. We tested the aggressive response of Argentine ants, Linepithema humile, toward nest-mate CHC profiles that were augmented with one of eight synthetic hydrocarbons that differed in branch position, chain length, or both. We found that Argentine ants showed similar levels of aggression toward nest-mate CHC profiles augmented with compounds that had the same branch position but differed in chain length. Conversely, Argentine ants displayed different levels of aggression toward nest-mate CHC profiles augmented with compounds that had different branch positions but the same chain length. While this was true in almost all cases, one CHC we tested elicited a greater aggressive response than its homologs. Interestingly, this was the only compound that did not occur naturally in correlated concentrations with its homologs in CHC profiles. Combined, these data suggest that CHCs of a homologous series elicit the same aggressive response because they convey the same information, rather than Argentine ants being unable to discriminate between different homologs. This study contributes to our understanding of the chemical basis of nestmate recognition by showing that, similar to spoken language, the chemical language of social insects contains “synonyms,” chemicals that differ in structure, but not meaning.
PMCID: PMC2895867  PMID: 20556636
Nest-mate recognition; Cuticular hydrocarbons; Argentine ants; Linepithema humile

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