The infrabuccal pellet piles of fungus-growing ants
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Fungus-growing ants (Attini) live in an obligate mutualism with the fungi they cultivate for food. Because of the obligate nature of this relationship, the success of the ants is directly dependent on their ability to grow healthy fungus gardens. Attine ants have evolved complex disease management strategies to reduce their garden’s exposure to potential parasitic microbes, to prevent the establishment of infection in their gardens, and to remove infected garden sections. The infrabuccal pocket, a filtering device located in the oral cavity of all ants, is an integral part of the mechanisms that leaf-cutter ants use to prevent the invasion and spread of general microbial parasites and the specific fungal-garden parasite Escovopsis. Fungus-growing ants carefully groom their garden, collecting general debris and pathogenic spores of Escovopsis in their infrabuccal pocket, the contents of which are later expelled in dump chambers inside the nest or externally. In this study we examined how a phylogenetically diverse collection of attine ants treat their infrabuccal pellets. Unlike leaf-cutters that deposit their infrabuccal pellets directly in refuse piles, ants of the more basal attine lineages stack their infrabuccal pellets in piles located close to their gardens, and a separate caste of workers is devoted to the construction, management, and eventual disposal of these piles.
KeywordsFungus Garden Nest Chamber Task Partitioning Refuse Pile Garden Worker
This study was supported by the NSF [IRCEB DEB-0110073]. We thank STRI, the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente of the Republic of Panama, and M. Leone for research permits and logistical support; E. Davenport, S. Price, and H. Reynolds for ant care; A. Danielson-Francois and B. Howes for comments on this manuscript. The experiments performed comply with the current laws of the USA.
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