, Volume 53, Issue 4, pp 446-455

A preference assay for quantifying symbiont choice in fungus-growing ants (Attini, Formicidae)

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Abstract.

We describe a bioassay for the quantification of cultivar preference (symbiont choice) of fungus-growing ants. The bioassay simultaneously presents mycelium of multiple pure cultivar genotypes to worker ants in a cafeteria-style test arena, and preferred versus non-preferred cultivar genotypes can then be identified based on the ants’ quantifiable behavioral tendencies to convert any of the offered mycelium into a fungus garden. Under natural conditions, fungus-growing ants are likely to express such cultivar preferences when mutant cultivars arise in a garden, or when colonies acquire a novel cultivar from a neighboring colony to replace their resident cultivar. We show that workers from different nests of the fungus-growing ant Cyphomyrmex costatus exhibit repeatable preferences vis-à-vis specific cultivar genotypes. The identified preferred and rejected cultivars can then be used in a performance assay to test whether the ants prefer cultivar genotypes that are superior in enhancing colony fitness (measured, for example, as garden productivity or colony growth), as predicted by symbiont-choice theory.

Received 24 February 2006; revised 23 June 2006; accepted 26 June 2006.