Posts Tagged ‘Aphaenogaster’


Pogonomyrmex maricopa (at left) tussles with an Aphaenogaster albisetosa at the Aphaenogaster nest entrance.

While in Arizona, I chanced upon a set of ant fights that I’d observed several times previously.  Single workers of the maricopa harvester ant Pogonomyrmex maricopa would approach a nest of their competitor, Aphaenogaster long-legged ants, and spend a few minutes drawing heat from the guards before wandering off.


Same thing, but different individuals (note differences in limb wounds from the previous photo)

The interaction is common enough that it really couldn’t be just a chance encounter.  Are the Pogos doing this for a reason?  Are they distracting the Aphaenogaster from foraging?  And, are there any myrmecology students in Arizona who need a little research project? It’d be great to figure out the purpose of the fights.


Three on one. Do the Pogos subject themselves to this treatment as a decoy, to draw Aphaenogaster away from shared foraging territory?

photo details (all photos): Canon mp-e 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D
ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec, twin flash diffused through tracing paper

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Aphaenogaster cockerelli, Arizona

Aphaenogaster cockerelli, Arizona

Here’s a new study in Current Biology from Adrian Smith, Bert Hoelldobler, and Juergen Liebig:

Abstract: Cheaters are a threat to every society and therefore societies have established rules to punish these individuals in order to stabilize their social system [1–3]. Recent models and observations suggest that enforcement of reproductive altruism (policing) in hymenopteran insect societies is a major force in maintaining high levels of cooperation [4–6]. In order to be able to enforce altruism, reproductive cheaters need to be reliably identified. Strong correlational evidence indicates that cuticular hydrocarbons are the means of identifying cheaters [7–14], but direct proof is still missing. In the ant Aphaenogaster cockerelli, we mimicked reproductive cheaters by applying a synthetic compound typical of fertile individuals on nonreproductive workers. This treatment induced nestmate aggression in colonies where a queen was present. As expected, it failed to do so in colonies without a queen where workers had begun to reproduce. This provides the first direct evidence that cuticular hydrocarbons are the informational basis of policing behaviors, serving a major function in the regulation of reproduction in social insects. We suggest that even though cheaters would gain from suppressing these profiles, they are prevented from doing so through the mechanisms of hydrocarbon biosynthesis and its relation to reproductive physiology. Cheaters are identified through information that is inherently reliable.

In less technical language, fertile ants smell different than infertile ants, and when researchers painted the fertility odor on non-reproducing workers, in colonies that already had active queens, the hapless ant was attacked by her sisters.  So colonies have a way to maintain social order that does not rest entirely on the altruism of individuals to forgo reproduction.  They, like us, have police.

Of course, we already knew that ants, bees, and wasps engage in this sort of policing.  What is novel in the Smith et al study is an experimental test of how the worker police recognize the cheaters.  As in much of ant communication, the cue is chemical.

source: Smith, A. A., Hoelldobler, B., Liebig, J. 2009. Cuticular Hydrocarbons Reliably Identify Cheaters and Allow Enforcement of Altruism in a Social Insect. Current Biology 19: 78-81. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.11.059.

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