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Behavioral differentiation among workers may reduce reproductive conflicts during colony inheritance in the termite Reticulitermes labralis


In the process of inheriting reproduction among social insects, conflicts over reproduction widely exist among potential reproductive individuals. These conflicts are expressed by the suppression of reproductive success or the competition for reproduction. However, such suppression and competition are often accompanied by high cost for individuals. Whether there may or may not be a harmonious behavioral strategy that has evolved to reduce these conflicts has received negligible attention in termites so far. Here, in the lower termite Reticulitermes labralis, we studied specific behaviors of workers before they differentiate into reproductives. Our behavioral observations show that when the queen was present, the workers which successfully replaced reproductives in the future had three different behavioral profiles compared to workers which did not develop into reproductives. That is, in queenright colony, the workers which differentiated into reproductives moved less, performed more proctodeal trophallaxis (anal feeding), and were groomed more than others. These three specific behaviors may indicate which workers have priority during the process of differentiation when queens are absent. We suggest that the weak mobility was intended to save energy, the higher number of proctodeal trophallaxis occurrences could serve as an honest signal to indicate their status, and the higher number of grooming behavior received could be a sign of dominance. Therefore, R. labralis may reduce reproductive conflicts with these specific behaviors which indicate the priority of certain workers to differentiate into replacement reproductives.

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Data availability

All data generated and analysed during this study are included in the supplementary information.


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This work was supported by the Project for Graduate Innovation Team of Northwestern Polytechnical University (02020-19GH010208) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31360104).

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Authors and Affiliations



RW and ZB conceived the ideas and designed methodology, ZB, and YL performed experiments and collected data, ZB analysed data, and RW, ZB, and DSD wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rui-Wu Wang.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All termite colonies were subject to review by the local ethical review committee of the School of Ecology and Environment, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Xi’an, China. The experiments were conducted in accordance with international standards on animal welfare.

Supplementary Information

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Ten-seconds recording (as an example) for two experimental groups comprising 48 workers which marked with color code, one soldier, and one replacement queen s and kept each into 6-cm Petri dishes (whose bottom was covered with moist filter paper) (WMV 10202 KB)

Supplementary file2 (XLSX 15 KB)

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Bai, Z., Liu, Y., Sillam-Dussès, D. et al. Behavioral differentiation among workers may reduce reproductive conflicts during colony inheritance in the termite Reticulitermes labralis. Insect. Soc. 69, 229–236 (2022).

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  • Reticulitermes labralis
  • Workers
  • Replacement reproductives
  • Social behaviors
  • Reproductive conflicts