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An apparent mutualism between Afrotropical ant species sharing the same nest


Social insects have a highly developed nestmate and species recognition system that is quite effective at keeping out unwanted intruders. Rare cases of “parabiosis,” however, are known in some ants where two species apparently live peacefully alongside each other within the same nest. Here, we report on such an association between the tiny Afrotropical ant Strumigenys maynei and the large ant Platythyrea conradti. We demonstrated that both ants peacefully share the same arboreal nests in spite of the presence of clearly distinct nestmate recognition cues. Because of the large size differences, we hypothesized that each of the two species would benefit from specializing in carrying out particular tasks, in analogy to the size-related division of labor observed in species with size-polymorphic workers. In line with this theory, we found that the tiny ant S. maynei was highly efficient at nest defense against intranidal arthropods and alien ant intruders, whereas the large ant P. conradti was highly skilled in nest engineering. We argue that the described association is likely mutualistic, as P. conradti clearly benefited from the supreme defense capabilities of S. maynei, and that, conversely, S. maynei took advantage of small prey thriving in the organic nest material collected by P. conradti.

Significance statement

Associations between social insects are typically parasitic in nature. A few cases, however, are known of beneficial associations between social insects. Here, we report such a rare association between two Afrotropical species that share the same nest even though they lack matching colony odors. The large ant Platythyrea conradti benefited from the presence of Strumigenys maynei as this tiny, but highly aggressive, ant was much more efficient in attacking intranidal and extranidal enemies. S. maynei in turn took advantage of P. conradti as this ant constructs a unique nest which attracts suitable prey.

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This research was supported by a type II grant of the Belgian Focal Point of the Global taxonomy Initiative, by a grant from the FWO Vlaanderen (Research Foundation Flanders) to TP (grant nr. 11D6414N) and by the Centre of Excellence grant PF/10/07-SEEDS. Field work and aggression experiments were done during the Ant and Bee course at Lamto. We would like to thank Sébastien Kouamé Kan Loukou, Nangounon Soro and Nanga Yeo for their assistance in the field and with their help in conducting preliminary experiments and Ricardo Caliari Oliveira for his assistance with the GCMS analysis. We are very grateful for the identification of the myrmecophile species by the following experts: Rafael Molero Baltanás (Thysanura), Frans Janssens (Collembola), Paweł Jałoszyński (Scydmaeninae), Volker Brachat (Pselaphinae) and Tim Struyve (Staphylinidae).

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Correspondence to Thomas Parmentier.

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Communicated by W. Hughes

Electronic supplementary material

Table S1

(PDF 155 kb)

Video S1.

P. conradti vs. S. maynei (MP4 5233 kb)

Video S2.

P. conradti vs. Crematogaster sp. 1 (MP4 2675 kb)

Video S3.

P. conradti vs. Tetramorium sp. (MP4 4347 kb)

Video S4.

S. maynei vs. Crematogaster sp. 2 (MP4 1882 kb)

Video S5.

S. maynei vs. Monomorium pharaonis (MP4 1430 kb)

Video S6.

S. maynei vs. Tetramorium sp. (MP4 1027 kb)

Video S7.

S. maynei vs. Neoasterolepisma delamarei (MP4 1639 kb)

Video S8.

S. maynei and P. conradti vs. Pselaphinae sp. 1 (MP4 2299 kb)

Video S9.

Inside view of the parabiotic nest after removal of organic material. Hundreds of Cyphoderus subsimilis and workers of P. conradti and S. maynei can be observed. (MP4 8594 kb)

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Parmentier, T., Yéo, K., Dekoninck, W. et al. An apparent mutualism between Afrotropical ant species sharing the same nest. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 71, 46 (2017).

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  • Ant guests
  • Caste
  • Nest defense
  • Polymorphism
  • Symbiosis
  • Task specialization