Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Hydrocarbon Afterglow Reveals Reproductive Cheaters

12.01.2009
An ‘honest indicator’ has been discovered by a scientific team at Arizona State University that reveals reproductive cheating. But before you run out to buy an infidelity identification kit, know that it only works for ants.

While it’s well-known that workers in ant colonies typically support one reproductive female – a queen, it turns out that cheating can be a problem, and not just for humans. Cheating is found in all sorts of animal and insect groups, including other highly organized social organisms, such as ants.

Humans cheat on their partners roughly 15-18 percent of the time (according to scientific studies), however, worker ants that stray from acceptable celibate social norms rarely, if ever, are successful. Cheaters are actively weeded out by other workers, and brought back into line, through a process called policing.

How can workers in an ant colony, with hundreds to thousands of sister-workers around them, locate one cheater in an ant hill?

Through fertility hydrocarbons, says Jürgen Liebig, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences and member of the Center for Social Dynamic and Complexity in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

According to research findings published in the journal Current Biology on Jan. 8, hydrocarbons on the outside cuticle of fertile ants form “a particular chemical signature blend.” A cocktail that an ant apparently can’t deny, cover up, or lie about and which brands a cheater much like the red “A” on the bosom of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”

Social insects, such as ants, bees and wasps, rely heavily on chemical signals to communicate. While earlier studies indicated that chemical signatures are associated with fertility, it was ASU doctoral student Adrian Smith’s studies with Aphaenogaster cockerelli worker ants that established that these chemical signatures are what allow workers to locate and police cheaters. To do this, Smith painted a non-fertile (non-cheating) worker with a potent pentocosane (hydrocarbon), making her a reproductive mimic. When Smith placed the ant back within her colony, fellow workers sniffed out the “cheater,” biting and attacking her.

“While we knew for some time that fertility status in ants was correlated with particular blends of hydrocarbons on the surface of the cuticle, no one was able to demonstrate that this hydrocarbon blend served as an indicator of fertility status to other nest mates,” says ASU’s Bert Hölldobler, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Ants,” coauthored with Harvard Professor Emeritus Edward O. Wilson.

A second set of experiments, confirmed the group’s findings. In an ant colony that lacked a queen, and in which some workers were reproducing, colony members had no aggressive response to the chemically altered, fake fertiles.

“This discovery is strong evidence that these hydrocarbons are ‘honest indicators,’ meaning their expression on the cuticle is intimately coupled with the physiological processes that regulate fertility status,” says Hölldobler, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

Fertility is signaled through hydrocarbon signatures on both the eggs and the cuticle of a worker ant. An A. cockerelli worker ant’s egg has the same fertility signal as the queen.

According to Smith, these hydrocarbons serve as a red-flag to other workers, announcing: “This one is capable of laying viable eggs.” Since egg surface hydrocarbons and cuticular hydrocarbons are physiologically linked, a change in one results in a change in the other.

Why are the hydrocarbons then especially suited to prevent reproductive cheating? Research shows that the chemicals don’t lie and worker ants cannot eliminate them to escape detection.

In order to be successful cheats, reproductive workers need to escape being identified. Yet, they still need to assure that their eggs escape detection. Hiding their eggs in plain sight, amongst those of the queen, would be the easiest solution. However, to achieve this, the worker’s eggs would need to express the fertility signal, like those of the queen.

“The dilemma is that if you do not produce the fertility signal on the cuticle you can escape detection, but if you don’t produce it on the egg, it won’t escape detection,” Liebig explains. “This seems to make cheating impossible, since they cannot solve both problems at the same time.”

The idea that ant colonies stabilize their social structure by maintaining a system for punishing miscreants, with a built-in mechanism for reliably identifying individuals as cheaters, is where work such as Smith, Hölldobler and Liebig’s finds application in other systems.

All animal societies share the common problem of individuals exploiting group resources for personal gain at a cost to the group. Smith points out that trying to understand how ant societies deal with this problem “gives us a basis for looking into the mechanisms used by other successful societies.”

“This paper opens a new window in our understanding of the social regulation and evolution of reproductive division of labor, a key trait in eusocial insects,” adds Hölldobler. In addition to this collaborative work, which will be highlighted in the journal Nature, Hölldobler’s nearly half-century study of insect societies has created a proliferation in many new areas of discovery. A book will be released in his honor by Harvard Press in February 2009, “Organization of Insect Societies: From Genome to Sociocomplexity.”

Jürgen Liebig
School of Life Sciences
Arizona State University
480-456-6019 (cell 1)
480-293-4571.(cell 2)
(480)727-8508, juergen.liebig@asu.edu
Adrian Smith (first author)
Doctoral Student
School of Life Sciences
Arizona State University
727 505 3547 (cell)
Adrian.Smith@asu.edu

Jürgen Liebig | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.asu.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht The birth of a new protein
20.10.2017 | University of Arizona

nachricht Building New Moss Factories
20.10.2017 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Neutron star merger directly observed for the first time

University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event

On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...

Im Focus: Breaking: the first light from two neutron stars merging

Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.

Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....

Im Focus: Smart sensors for efficient processes

Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).

When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...

Im Focus: Cold molecules on collision course

Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.

How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...

Im Focus: Shrinking the proton again!

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.

It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ASEAN Member States discuss the future role of renewable energy

17.10.2017 | Event News

World Health Summit 2017: International experts set the course for the future of Global Health

10.10.2017 | Event News

Climate Engineering Conference 2017 Opens in Berlin

10.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Terahertz spectroscopy goes nano

20.10.2017 | Information Technology

Strange but true: Turning a material upside down can sometimes make it softer

20.10.2017 | Materials Sciences

NRL clarifies valley polarization for electronic and optoelectronic technologies

20.10.2017 | Interdisciplinary Research

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>