Territorial boundaries between conspecific social insect colonies are maintained through nestmate recognition systems. However, in supercolony-forming ants, which have developed an extraordinary social organization style known as unicoloniality, a single supercolony extends across large geographic distance. The underlying mechanism is considered to involve less frequent occurrence of intraspecific aggressive behaviors, while maintaining interspecific competition. Thus, we examined whether the supercolony-forming species, Formica yessensis has a nestmate recognition system similar to that of the multicolonial species, Camponotus japonicus with respect to the cuticular hydrocarbon-sensitive sensillum (CHC sensillum), which responds only to non-nestmate CHCs. We further investigated whether the sensory system reflects on the apparent reduced aggression between non-nestmates typical to unicolonial species.
F. yessensis constructs supercolonies comprising numerous nests and constitutes the largest supercolonies in Japan. We compared the within-colony or between-colonies’ (1) similarity in CHC profiles, the nestmate recognition cues, (2) levels of the CHC sensillar response, (3) levels of aggression between workers, as correlated with geographic distances between nests, and (4) their genetic relatedness. Workers from nests within the supercolony revealed a greater similarity of CHC profiles compared to workers from colonies outside it. Total response of the active CHC sensilla stimulated with conspecific alien CHCs did not increase as much as in case of C. japonicus, suggesting that discrimination of conspecific workers at the peripheral system is limited. It was particularly limited among workers within a supercolony, but was fully expressed for allospecific workers.
We demonstrate that chemical discrimination between nestmates and non-nestmates in F. yessensis was not clear cut, probably because this species has only subtle intraspecific differences in the CHC pattern that typify within a supercolony. Such an incomplete chemical discrimination via the CHC sensilla is thus an important factor contributing to decreased occurrence of intraspecific aggressive behavior especially within a supercolony.