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Do host species evolve a specific response to slave-making ants?

Olivier Delattre1*, Rumsaïs Blatrix2, Nicolas Châline13, Stéphane Chameron1, Anne Fédou1, Chloé Leroy1 and Pierre Jaisson1

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratoire d’Ethologie Expérimentale et Comparée, Université Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité, 99 avenue J.-B, Clément, 93430, Villetaneuse, France

2 Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1919 route de Mende, F-34293, Montpellier cedex 5, France

3 Departamento de Biologia, FFCLRP, Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Ribeirão Preto, SP, Brazil

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Frontiers in Zoology 2012, 9:38  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-9-38

Published: 31 December 2012



Social parasitism is an important selective pressure for social insect species. It is particularly the case for the hosts of dulotic (so called slave-making) ants, which pillage the brood of host colonies to increase the worker force of their own colony. Such raids can have an important impact on the fitness of the host nest. An arms race which can lead to geographic variation in host defenses is thus expected between hosts and parasites. In this study we tested whether the presence of a social parasite (the dulotic ant Myrmoxenus ravouxi) within an ant community correlated with a specific behavioral defense strategy of local host or non-host populations of Temnothorax ants. Social recognition often leads to more or less pronounced agonistic interactions between non-nestmates ants. Here, we monitored agonistic behaviors to assess whether ants discriminate social parasites from other ants. It is now well-known that ants essentially rely on cuticular hydrocarbons to discriminate nestmates from aliens. If host species have evolved a specific recognition mechanism for their parasite, we hypothesize that the differences in behavioral responses would not be fully explained simply by quantitative dissimilarity in cuticular hydrocarbon profiles, but should also involve a qualitative response due to the detection of particular compounds. We scaled the behavioral results according to the quantitative chemical distance between host and parasite colonies to test this hypothesis.


Cuticular hydrocarbon profiles were distinct between species, but host species did not show a clearly higher aggression rate towards the parasite than toward non-parasite intruders, unless the degree of response was scaled by the chemical distance between intruders and recipient colonies. By doing so, we show that workers of the host and of a non-host species in the parasitized site displayed more agonistic behaviors (bites and ejections) towards parasite than toward non-parasite intruders.


We used two different analyses of our behavioral data (standardized with the chemical distance between colonies or not) to test our hypothesis. Standardized data show behavioral differences which could indicate qualitative and specific parasite recognition. We finally stress the importance of considering the whole set of potentially interacting species to understand the coevolution between social parasites and their hosts.

Coevolution; Formicidae; Social recognition; Social parasitism; Temnothorax