Are variations in cuticular hydrocarbons of queens and workers a reliable signal of fertility in the ant Harpegnathos saltator?

Jürgen Liebig, Christian Peeters, Neil J. Oldham, Claus Markstädter, Bert Hölldobler

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Abstract

One of the key features of insect societies is the division of labor in reproduction between one or a few fertile individuals and many sterile nestmates that function as helpers. The behavioral and physiological mechanisms regulating reproduction in ant societies are still not very well understood, especially in species in which all colony members are reproductively totipotent. In the ponerine ant Harpegnathos saltator, queen- worker dimorphism is very limited, and a few mated workers reproduce ('gamergates') once the founding queen becomes senescent. Worker oviposition is regulated by highly directed aggressive interactions among nestmates, who can recognize different levels of ovarian activity. We show that variations in cuticular hydrocarbons (CHC) correlate with oogenesis, both for queens and workers. 13,23-Dimethylheptatriacontane is present in egg-layers, but not in infertile workers and queens. Proportions of other CHCs vary as well, resulting in clear separation of the ants in a multivariate analysis. Egg- layers are characterized by an elongation of the chain length of CHCs. We used solid-phase microextraction to measure CHCs in live ants that were experimentally induced to start producing eggs. Over a period of 118 days, CHC profiles of infertile workers changed completely to that of reproductives. The effect of age can be excluded in this modification. This striking correlation of ovarian activity with CHC variation and its correspondence with the observed recognition behavior exhibited by the workers toward egg-laying nestmates suggests that CHCs serve as a fertility signal in the ant H. saltator, a reliable basis for regulating reproduction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4124-4131
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume97
Issue number8
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 11 2000
Externally publishedYes

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