Queen fertility, egg marking and colony size in the ant Camponotus floridanus
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In ant societies, workers do not usually reproduce but gain indirect fitness benefits from raising related offspring produced by the queen. One of the preconditions of this worker self-restraint is sufficient fertility of the queen. The queen is, therefore, expected to signal her fertility. In Camponotus floridanus, workers can recognize the presence of a highly fertile queen via her eggs, which are marked with the queen's specific hydrocarbon profile. If information on fertility is encoded in the hydrocarbon profile of eggs, we expect workers to be able to differentiate between eggs from highly and weakly fertile queens. We found that workers discriminate between these eggs solely on the basis of their hydrocarbon profiles which differ both qualitatively and quantitatively. This pattern is further supported by the similarity of the egg profiles of workers and weakly fertile queens and the similar treatment of both kinds of eggs. Profiles of queen eggs correspond to the cuticular hydrocarbon profiles of the respective queens. Changes in the cuticular profiles are associated with the size of the colony the queen originates from and her current egg-laying rate. However, partial correlation analysis indicates that only colony size predicts the cuticular profile. Colony size is a buffered indicator of queen fertility as it is a consequence of queen productivity within a certain period of time, whereas daily egg-laying rate varies due to cyclical oviposition. We conclude that surface hydrocarbons of eggs and the cuticular profiles of queens both signal queen fertility, suggesting a major role of fertility signals in the regulation of reproduction in social insects.