Experimental evidence for the costs and hygienic significance of the antibiotic metapleural gland secretion in leaf-cutting ants
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The paired exocrine metapleural glands present in the large majority of ant species produce compounds with antibiotic properties. In the leaf-cutting ant, Acromyrmex octospinosus, the secretion consists of more than 20 different compounds and it has generally been assumed that the glands serve as a general defence against various infectious microbes of fungal and bacterial origin. We present results illuminating the direct costs and benefits of these metapleural gland defences in A. octospinosus. We show that major workers of this leaf-cutting ant experience a significant reduction in their respiration rate when the metapleural glands are experimentally closed, indicating that metapleural gland secretion incurs a substantial cost and that the production of compounds from these glands is terminated when the ants are incapable of secreting them. In another set of experiments, we show that the ability to secrete antibiotic compounds from the metapleural glands is of significant importance when ants are exposed to a general but potentially virulent insect pathogen, Metarhizium anisopliae. Infection with this fungus is lethal within a few days when ants have their metapleural glands experimentally closed, but relatively harmless when the metapleural glands are functional. These findings support experimentally the view that the metapleural glands play an important hygienic role in leaf-cutting ants.
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