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Head-butting as an Early Indicator of Reproductive Disinhibition in the Termite Zootermopsis nevadensis

Abstract

In lower termites, functionally sterile larval helpers are totipotent—capable of becoming reproductively active with the loss of their colony’s king or queen. Full reproductive development may take several weeks, but initiation of this developmental response most likely occurs shortly after colony members detect when a reproductive-specific signal is missing. We investigated the early response of termite helpers to the removal of their king and queen in the basal termite species Zootermopsis nevadensis. Within 6–12 h after reproductives were removed, helpers displayed an increase in head-butting—a behavior associated with dominance in other termite species as well as in closely related roaches. The loss of just one reproductive, either the king or queen, was also sufficient to cause an increase in head-butting. We did not find evidence, however, that this response was sex-specific: males and females were equally likely to increase head-butting independent of the sex of the reproductive that was removed. Finally, we discovered that reproductive-specific compounds present on the cuticle of king and queen termites were also present in their feces, but the presence of the feces did not seem sufficient to inhibit the increased head-butting after the reproductives were removed. Collectively, these results indicate that termite workers readily detect the loss of reproductives in their colony and that they at least initially respond in a non sex-specific manner.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Kevin Haight for assistance with colony collection and the administrators of the Pebble Beach Company for permission to collect termites. Additionally, we would like to thank Steve Prager and Barbara Birtcil for assistance with colony maintenance and experiments. All experiments were conducted in accordance with American statutes governing research. This project was supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2007-35302-18172 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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Correspondence to Clint A. Penick.

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Esm 1

Footage providing examples of head-butting behavior and head-banging (alarm) behavior. Head-butting consists of a single forward motion directed towards another individual while head-banging is a repeated up and down motion of the head that is not usually directed at another individual. (M1V 2545 kb)

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Penick, C.A., Trobaugh, B., Brent, C.S. et al. Head-butting as an Early Indicator of Reproductive Disinhibition in the Termite Zootermopsis nevadensis . J Insect Behav 26, 23–34 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10905-012-9332-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10905-012-9332-x

Keywords

  • Fertility signal
  • neotenic reproduction
  • sex-specific response
  • feces
  • termites