, Volume 52, Issue 3, pp 298-303

Examination of the immune responses of males and workers of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior and the effect of infection

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Summary.

Parasites represent significant challenges to social insects. The high density, interaction rate and relatedness of individuals within colonies are all predicted to make social insect colonies particularly vulnerable to parasites. To cope with this pressure, social insects have evolved a number of defence mechanisms. These include the immune response, which, aside from in bumblebees, has been relatively little studied in social insects. Here we compare the immune responses of males and workers of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior and examine the effect upon immunocompetence of prior exposure to a virulent parasite. Males have a far lower immune response than workers, suggesting either haploid susceptibility or reduced investment in immunity by the short-lived males. There was also significantly less variation in the immune response of males than of workers, which may be due to leaf-cutting ant workers being more variable in age or more genetically diverse within colonies. When exposed to the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium, workers expressed a substantially reduced immune response 96 h after infection, suggesting that the immune system was either depleted by having to respond to the Metarhizium infection or was depressed by the parasite. The results suggest that the immune response is a costly and limited process, but further experiments are needed to distinguish between the alternative explanations for the effects observed.

Received 3 August 2004; revised 3 February 2005; accepted 2 March 2005.