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Effect of soldiers on collective tunneling behavior in three species of Reticulitermes (Blattodea: Rhinotermitidae)

Abstract

In social insects, behavioral changes are shaped by social context which includes the presence of other castes. Soldiers play a critical role in the defense of a termite colony, although their role beyond defense is less understood. Termites tunnel to safely acquire resources, producing an extended phenotype of the colony shaped by various environmental and genetic factors. In this study, we investigated the indirect influence of the soldier on worker tunneling behavior for three species of Reticulitermes subterranean termites. Groups of 50 worker termites containing either three, one, none, or the cuticular extract of soldiers were placed into planar arenas and allowed to tunnel. The speed and morphology of tunnel construction were determined for the first 36 h of tunneling. We found tunneling differences among species: R. flavipes (Kollar) produced more branches and tunneled faster than both R. hageni Banks and R. virginicus (Banks). Trials with live soldiers produced more branches in R. flavipes, while trials with live soldiers or even the chemical extract of a soldier increased tunnel speed in R. flavipes and accelerated tunnel initiation in R. hageni. In R. virginicus, there was little impact of soldiers. These behavioral changes in R. flavipes and R. hageni may reduce the chance of tunneling workers encountering enemies without soldiers present. All three species used dead reckoning to maintain a straight direction after being forced through two sharp turns, but the presence of soldiers had no influence on this ability. This study, showing that soldiers can influence tunneling behavior in workers in some species, provides additional evidence of the keystone role of soldiers in termite colonies, and demonstrates that this influence can be exerted through chemical cues alone in some species.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Thomas Chouvenc and Ron Pepin for assistance learning to make planar arenas. Also, thanks to Taylor Wade for assistance in the lab. This research was supported by the Urban Entomology Endowment and the Dr. Roger E. Gold Endowed Graduate Scholarship at Texas A&M University.

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MAJ and ELV conceived and designed the project. MAJ collected and analyzed the data. MAJ wrote the manuscript with contributions from ELV.

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Correspondence to M. A. Janowiecki.

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Janowiecki, M.A., Vargo, E.L. Effect of soldiers on collective tunneling behavior in three species of Reticulitermes (Blattodea: Rhinotermitidae). Insect. Soc. 69, 237–245 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00040-022-00864-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00040-022-00864-6

Keywords

  • Caste polyethism
  • Behavioral plasticity
  • Foraging
  • Termite