Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 65, Issue 12, pp 2319–2327 | Cite as

Disease resistance in a weaver ant, Polyrhachis dives, and the role of antibiotic-producing glands

  • Peter GraystockEmail author
  • William O. H. Hughes
Original Paper


Parasites represent one of the main threats to all organisms and are likely to be particularly significant for social animals because of the increased potential for intragroup transmission. Social animals must therefore have effective resistance mechanisms against parasites and one of the most important components of disease resistance in ants is thought to be the antibiotic-producing metapleural gland. This gland is ancestral in ants, but has been lost secondarily in a small number of species. It is unknown whether these evolutionary losses are due to a reduction in parasite pressure or the replacement of the gland’s function with other resistance mechanisms. Here we used the generalist entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium to compare the disease resistance of a species of a weaver ant, Polyrhachis dives, which has lost the metapleural gland, with that of the well-studied leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior and two other ant species, Myrmica ruginodis and Formica fusca, all of which have metapleural glands. The P. dives weaver ants had intermediate resistance when kept individually, and similar resistance to A. echinatior leaf-cutting ants when kept in groups, suggesting that the loss of the metapleural gland has not resulted in weaver ants having reduced disease resistance. P. dives weaver ants self-groomed at a significantly higher rate than the other ants examined and apparently use their venom for resistance, as they had reduced resistance when their venom gland was blocked and the venom was shown in vitro to prevent the germination of fungal spores. Unexpectedly, the leaf-cutting ant A. echinatior also had reduced resistance to Metarhizium when its venom gland was blocked. It therefore appears that the evolutionary loss of the metapleural gland does not result in reduced disease resistance in P. dives weaver ants, and that this at least in part may be due to the ants having antimicrobial venom and high self-grooming rates. The results therefore emphasise the importance of multiple, complementary mechanisms in the disease resistance of ant societies.


Parasite Grooming Metapleural gland Social insect Venom gland Weaver ant 



We are grateful to Allen Herre and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute for the facilities in Gamboa, the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM) for permission to collect and export the Acromyrmex colonies, and Martin Sebesta for providing the other ant colonies. We also thank Crystal Frost, Katherine Roberts, Lorenzo Santorelli, Toby Fountain, Sophie Evison and Adam Smith for technical assistance and discussions, the three anonymous reviewers for their comments on the manuscript and the Leverhulme Foundation for funding.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Integrative and Comparative BiologyUniversity of LeedsLeedsUK

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