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Social prophylaxis through distant corpse removal in ants


Living in groups raises important issues concerning waste management and related sanitary risks. Social insects such as ants live at high densities with genetically related individuals within confined and humid nests, all these factors being highly favorable for the spread of pathogens. Therefore, in addition to individual immunity, a social prophylaxis takes place, namely, by the removal of risky items such as corpses and their rejection at a distance from the ant nest. In this study, we investigate how Myrmica rubra workers manage to reduce encounters between potentially hazardous corpses and nestmates. Using both field and laboratory experiments, we describe how the spatial distribution and the removal distance of waste items vary as a function of their associated sanitary risks (inert item vs. corpse). In the field, corpse-carrying ants walked in a rather linear way away from the nest entrance and had an equal probability of choosing any direction. Therefore, they did not aggregate corpses in dedicated areas but scattered them in the environment. In both field and laboratory experiments, ants carrying corpses dropped their load in more remote—and less frequented—areas than workers carrying inert items. However, for equidistant areas, ants did not avoid dropping corpses at a location where they perceived area marking as a cue of high occupancy level by nestmates. Our results suggest that ants use distance to the nest rather than other occupancy cues to limit sanitary risks associated with dead nestmates.

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We thank Xavier Massart, Ariane Catala, and Hélène le Borgne for their contributions to the experiments. We also thank Dr. Vincent Fourcassié for his helpful advice for data analysis. We also thank the anonymous referees for their comments. This study was funded by a Ph.D. grant from FRIA (Fonds pour la Recherche dans l’Industrie et dans l’Agriculture). C.D. and J.-L.D. are senior research associates from the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS).

Ethical standards

We declare that the experiments comply with the current laws of Belgium.

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Correspondence to Lise Diez.

Additional information

Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Diez, L., Deneubourg, J. & Detrain, C. Social prophylaxis through distant corpse removal in ants. Naturwissenschaften 99, 833–842 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-012-0965-6

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  • Necrophoresis
  • Myrmica rubra
  • Ants
  • Social insects
  • Area marking
  • Threshold distance