Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 171–184 | Cite as

The migrating herdsman Dolichoderus (Diabolus) cuspidatus: an ant with a novel mode of life

  • Ulrich Maschwitz
  • Heinz Hänel


The Malayan ant Dolichoderus cuspidatus lives in obligatory symbiosis with the pseudococcid Malaicoccus formicarii and other species of the same genus. The assemblies, which may be encountered up to 25 m away from the nest, are constantly covered with a great number of worker ants who protect them and receive honeydew. In the event of heavy rain the workers from a dense protective cluster, clinging to each other on top of the mealybugs. Neither hunting behavior nor active search for protein sources was observed in D. cuspidatus, although dead insects were accepted as food. When not searching for new plants, the activity of the ants outside the colony is limited to visiting the mealybugs. During the night and parts of the day the ants stay in their nest. Ant colonies deprived of their mealybugs are not viable due to their dependence on the symbiosis and because of the competition of other ants. Antless M. formicarii are likewise not viable. The mealybugs are extremely polyphagous and feed on many different monocotylous and dicotylous angiosperms. They feed exclusively on the phloem sap of young plant parts which are rich in amino acids. Dolichoderus cuspidatus workers carry the mealybugs to such locations. During the picking up and carrying process both partners display typical behavioral patterns. The colonization of new feeding sites takes place in well organized mass processions. During the foundation or disintegration of large feeding complexes, provisional depots with waiting mealybugs and ants are set up. The pseudococcids are carried not only while shifting the feeding sites, but also whenever the colony leaves its former nesting site and especially when any kind of disturbance occurs. They are even carried about without any apparent external cause, which leads to the fact that, at all times of trail activity, on average more than 10% of all ants using the trails carry mealybugs. Mealybugs are also present within the nest, especially adult females which are viviparous and give birth to their offspring there. Censused colonies each consisted of over 10 000 workers, about 4000 larvae and pupae, more than 5000 mealybugs and one ergatoid queen. Male winged ants were observed in large numbers during the dry season (January–February) and during the rainy season (September–October). The colonies form typical clumplike bivouac nests consisting of clusters of workers clinging to each other, thereby covering the brood and the mealybugs. The nesting site is in no way altered by constructive measures and is mostly found close to the ground. The preferred nesting sites are clusters of leaves, and cavities in wood or soil, although a freely hanging bivouac between a few branches may be set up as well. As soon as the distance between the nest and the feeding site is too great the colony moves to the feeding site, whereby the brood and the mealybugs are carried along in a well organized manner. During such nest-moving the establishment of intermediate depots can be observed. A shift of nest sites can also be induced by disturbances or by a change in the microclimate in the vicinity of the nest. Colonies multiply by budding. The tropical rain forest continuously offers different sprouting plants, the utilization of which requires extreme mobility on the part of the consumer. The unique behavioral strategy of D. cuspidatus, to carry constantly their polyphagous mealybug partners to new feeding sites and to take the whole colony there has enabled this ant and its symbiont to occupy this rich food niche. Dolichoderus cuspidatus is the first true nomad found in ants.


Nest Site Tropical Rain Forest Rich Food Feeding Site Obligatory Symbiosis 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1985

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ulrich Maschwitz
    • 1
  • Heinz Hänel
    • 1
  1. 1.Fachbereich Biologie-Zoologie der J.W. Goethe-UniversitätFrankfurt am MainFederal Republic of Germany

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