Different Insect Species Use Different Chemicals to Identify Queens
For years it was thought that ants, wasps, and other eusocial insects used a common class of chemical compounds to distinguish queens from workers and other members of their colonies or hives. However, new research shows that these chemical signals are very different, even between closely related species.
“These chemical signatures are incredibly important, because social insect groups couldn’t function without them,” said Adrian Smith, lead author of a paper on the work. “These signals are how insects in a colony distinguish males from females and workers from queens.”
Researchers collected the colonies of three closely related trap-jaw ant species found in the southeastern United States: Odontomachus ruginodis, O. relictus and O. haematodus. The researchers then took samples of the chemicals found on the exoskeleton of each colony’s queen and workers and used a gas chromatograph to analyze each ant’s chemical signature.
The researchers found that the queens of each trap-jaw species used very different chemicals to differentiate themselves from workers.
“Not only are these pheromones outside of the class of compounds thought to be common to all eusocial insect queens, but they are not even similar to each other,” Smith said. “Each species uses its own unique blend of chemicals. And two of these chemicals are — as far as we can tell — completely new to science.”
These new chemicals belong to a class of compounds called dialkyltetrahydrofurans, which had previously been found in butterflies, but not in eusocial insects.
Queen and worker ants are all females, but the researchers also sampled the chemicals found on males.
“Across these three Odontomachus species, the males had much more similar chemical signatures than females — though you could still tell one species from another,” Smith said. “Males are outsiders in ant society — they fly out of the colony to breed and then die. Perhaps because of this, they are not well studied. Little is known about their chemical signatures, even though these male pheromones may play a key role in how prospective queens identify their mates.”
The new findings raise interesting questions in two areas. Firs, are these results evidence of evolutionary links between solitary and social insect communication?
“Solitary insects use their chemical signatures for distinguishing the sexes and finding a mate,” Smith said. “This study demonstrates that social insects are likely doing the same thing, as well as things that are specific to social insects, such as queen signaling.”
Another line of questioning revolves around the new chemical compounds that researchers found in Odontomachus queens. Additional research is needed to explore why the ants have evolved to produce these chemicals, and whether these chemicals may have practical uses in other applications.
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