Symbiosis of a termite and a sclerotium-forming fungus: Sclerotia mimic termite eggs
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Brown balls, of a similar size but different shape to termite eggs, were found frequently in the piles of eggs of the subterranean termite Reticulitermes speratus. rDNA analysis identified the ball as the sclerotia of the fungus, Fibularhizoctonia sp. nov, which is phylogenetically closest to decay fungi, Athelia spp. Laboratory observation showed that the workers gathered the eggs and the sclerotia indiscriminately, even if they were widely scattered in a Petri dish, and piled them up in a specific place for egg care. We compared the morphology of the eggs with that of sclerotia of Fibularhizoctonia spp. and Athelia spp. in relation to egg carrying behaviour, and found that the workers could only carry the Fibularhizoctonia spp. sclerotia whose diameters were similar to the short diameter of the eggs. We also conducted a bioassay using termite eggs and dummy eggs (glass beads and sea sand) of two diameter-classes, coated with or without the egg-derived chemicals. The workers recognized the eggs based on a combination of the size, shape, and chemical cues. All the results suggested that the sclerotia mimic the eggs both morphologically and chemically. Finally, we found that the workers suppressed germination of sclerotia, and termite egg survival increased in the presence of sclerotia only if they were tended by the workers. If the workers were removed experimentally, the sclerotia germinated and grew by exploiting termite eggs. These results suggest that the sclerotia protect termite eggs from putative pathogens.
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- egg recognition
- subterranean termite
- termite–fungus interaction