Chemical Fertility Signaling in Termites: Idiosyncrasies and Commonalities in Comparison with Ants

Abstract

Termites evolved eusociality independently from social Hymenoptera. As a common trait, reproductive monopoly is maintained through chemical communication. The queen (and in termites also a king) prevents workers from reproduction by conveying their reproductive status. In termites all soldiers are sterile, but workers’ potential to reproduce differs between species. It ranges from totipotency in wood-dwelling lower termites where workers are a transient stage from which all other castes develop, to sterile workers in some higher termites. Intermediate are species in which workers can develop into replacement sexuals within the nest but not into winged sexuals. I summarize the patchy picture about fertility signaling that we currently have for termites, pointing also to potential conflicts over reproduction that differ from those in social Hymenoptera. Recent findings imply that, similar to many social Hymenoptera, wood-dwelling termites that live in confined nests use long-chain cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) as fertility signals. Yet other compounds are important as well, comprising proteinaceous secretions and especially volatiles. For a subterranean termite, two volatiles have been identified as primer pheromones that prevent reproductive differentiation of workers. It requires more data to test whether wood-dwelling termites use CHCs, while species with larger colonies and less confined nests use volatiles, or whether all species rely on multicomponent signals. Ultimately, we need more effort to model and test potential conflicts over reproduction between queens, kings and workers. Here results from social Hymenoptera cannot be transferred to termites as the latter are diploid and commonly inbred. This review illustrates promising future research avenues.

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Acknowledgements

I hope that this review will inspire young researchers to step into termite research. I thank Volker Nehring for comments on the manuscript and English editing, two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments, and Abraham Hefetz and Etya Amsalem for inviting me to contribute to this special issue and for their efforts in organizing it. This work was supported by a DFG grant (KO1895/23-1).

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Correspondence to Judith Korb.

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Korb, J. Chemical Fertility Signaling in Termites: Idiosyncrasies and Commonalities in Comparison with Ants. J Chem Ecol 44, 818–826 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10886-018-0952-2

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Keywords

  • CHC
  • Chemical communication
  • Conflict
  • Fertility signaling
  • Manipulation
  • Termites