Mechanistic Diversity in Long-Range Regulation of Worker Reproduction in Polydomous Ant Species

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Ant colonies provide numerous opportunities to study communication systems that maintain the cohesion of eusocial groups. In many ant species, workers have retained their ovaries and the ability to produce

Ant colonies provide numerous opportunities to study communication systems that maintain the cohesion of eusocial groups. In many ant species, workers have retained their ovaries and the ability to produce male offspring; however, they generally refrain from producing their own sons when a fertile queen is present in the colony. Although mechanisms that facilitate the communication of the presence of a fertile queen to all members of the colony have been highly studied, those studies have often overlooked the added challenge faced by polydomous species, which divide their nests across as many as one hundred satellite nests resulting in workers potentially having infrequent contact with the queen. In these polydomous contexts, regulatory phenotypes must extend beyond the immediate spatial influence of the queen.

This work investigates mechanisms that can extend the spatial reach of fertility signaling and reproductive regulation in three polydomous ant species. In Novomessor cockerelli, the presence of larvae but not eggs is shown to inhibit worker reproduction. Then, in Camponotus floridanus, 3-methylheptacosane found on the queen cuticle and queen-laid eggs is verified as a releaser pheromone sufficient to disrupt normally occurring aggressive behavior toward foreign workers. Finally, the volatile and cuticular hydrocarbon pheromones present on the cuticle of Oecophylla smaragdina queens are shown to release strong attraction response by workers; when coupled with previous work, this result suggests that these chemicals may underly both the formation of a worker retinue around the queen as well as egg-located mechanisms of reproductive regulation in distant satellite nests. Whereas most previous studies have focused on the short-range role of hydrocarbons on the cuticle of the queen, these studies demonstrate that eusocial insects may employ longer range regulatory mechanisms. Both queen volatiles and distributed brood can extend the range of queen fertility signaling, and the use of larvae for fertility signaling suggest that feeding itself may be a non-chemical mechanism for reproductive regulation. Although trail laying in mass-recruiting ants is often used as an example of complex communication, reproductive regulation in ants may be a similarly complex example of insect communication, especially in the case of large, polydomous ant colonies.