Influence of Mutualistic Lifestyle, Mutualistic Partner, and Climate on Cuticular Hydrocarbon Profiles in Parabiotic Ants


A vital trait in insects is their cuticular hydrocarbon (CHC) profile, which protects the insect against desiccation and serves in chemical communication. Due to these functions, CHC profiles are shaped by both climatic conditions and biotic interactions. Here, we investigated CHC differentiation in the neotropical parabiotic ant species Crematogaster levior and Camponotus femoratus, which mutualistically share a nest. Both consist of two cryptic species each (Cr. levior A and B and Ca. femoratus PAT and PS) that differ genetically and possess strongly different CHC profiles. We characterized and compared CHC profiles of the four cryptic species in detail. Our results suggest that Cr. levior A, Ca. femoratus PAT and Ca. femoratus PS adapted their CHC profiles to the parabiotic lifestyle by producing longer-chain CHCs. At the same time, they changed their major CHC classes, and produce more alkadienes and methyl-branched alkenes compared to Cr. levior B or non-parabiotic species. The CHC profiles of Cr. levior B were more similar to related, non-parabiotic species of the Orthocrema clade than Cr. levior A, and the chain lengths of B were similar to the reconstructed ancestral state. Signals of both the parabiotic partner (biotic conditions) and climate (abiotic conditions) were found in the CHC profiles of all four cryptic species. Our data suggest that mutualisms shaped the CHC profiles of the studied species, in particular chain length and CHC class composition. Beside this, signals of the parabiotic partners indicate potential impacts of biotic interactions, via chemical mimicry or chemical camouflage.

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Firstly, we would like to thank Heike Stypa for their support in the lab. Further on, we want to acknowledge Jérôme Chave, Philippe Gaucher and Dorothée Deslignes for permission to sample at the Nouragues Ecological Research Station, Aurélie Dourdain for allowing us to work at the Paracou Research Station and similarly, the late Philippe Cerdan for the Hydreco Lab Petit Saut. Next, we thank Bonnie Blaimer and Manfred Verhaagh for their species identification. Finally, we want to thank Marina Psalti and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.


This study was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG, grant number to FM: ME 3842/5–1, TS: SCHM 2645/7–1 and BF: FE 1333/7–1) and an “Investissement d’Avenir” grant managed by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche to JO (CEBA, ref. ANR-10-LABX-25-01).

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FM, BF and TS designed the research; PPS, JH, BF, JO and FM collected the animals; PPS performed the chemical analyses and collected the data; PPS and FM analyzed the data; PPS and FM wrote the first version of the manuscript. All authors revised and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Philipp P. Sprenger.

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There is no ethics committee overseeing experimental research on ants. However, all efforts were made to treat the animals as humanely as possible. Research and specimen export was executed under permission of the Republic of France (Permission NOR: TREL173489A/13).

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Sprenger, P.P., Hartke, J., Feldmeyer, B. et al. Influence of Mutualistic Lifestyle, Mutualistic Partner, and Climate on Cuticular Hydrocarbon Profiles in Parabiotic Ants. J Chem Ecol 45, 741–754 (2019).

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  • Adaptation
  • Chemical communication
  • Cryptic species
  • Formicidae
  • Mimicry
  • Mutualism
  • Parabiosis