, Volume 56, Issue 1, pp 89-95

Help or disperse? Cooperation in termites influenced by food conditions

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Ecological factors have been claimed paramount for the evolution and maintenance of cooperative group living in eusocial termites, as well as in cooperatively breeding birds and mammals. However, a clear demonstration of the role of any specific ecological factor in termites has been lacking. In the termite Cryptotermes secundus, individuals have two options, staying as helpers at the natal nest or developing into winged sexuals that disperse to found new colonies. An important ecological factor expected to influence the course of termite development is food availability; C. secundus nests inside a single piece of wood that serves as the sole source of food for the duration of the colony. As wood is consumed, the longevity of the colony is reduced, thus diminishing the potential fitness gains of staying at the nest. We experimentally investigated the occurrence of cooperative behavior and development under abundant- and limited-food conditions. Workers exposed to food-limited conditions were more likely to develop into dispersing sexuals and increased “selfishly” their food-acquisition behaviors. Proximately, a reduced frequency of proctodeal trophallaxis may have interfered with the distribution of pheromones that inhibit sexual development. Ultimately, decreased inclusive fitness benefits in food-limited, and thus short-lived nests, appear to explain the development of dispersing sexuals, supporting (1) the benefits-of-philopatry hypothesis as developed for the occurrence of cooperative breeding in vertebrates, and (2) predictions of reproductive skew theories.

Communicated by L. Keller