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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Altruistic defence behaviours in aphids

Gi-Mick Wu12*, Guy Boivin12, Jacques Brodeur3, Luc-Alain Giraldeau4 and Yannick Outreman5

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, 21,111 Lakeshore Road, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC, H9X 3V9, Canada

2 Centre de recherche et développement en horticulture, Agriculture & Agroalimentaire Canada, 430 boul. Gouin, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, QC, J3B 3E6, Canada

3 Institut de Recherche en Biologie Végétale, Université de Montréal, 4101 Sherbrooke Est, Montréal, QC, H1X 2B2, Canada

4 Département des sciences biologiques, Université du Québec à Montréal, Case postale 8888, succursale Centre-ville, Montréal, QC, H3C 3P8, Canada

5 UMR 1099 INRA-Agrocampus Ouest-Université Rennes I "Biologie des Organismes et des Populations appliquée à la Protection des Plantes" [BIO3P], 65 rue de Saint-Brieuc CS 84215, 35042 Rennes Cedex, France

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:19  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-19

Published: 20 January 2010



Altruistic anti-predatory behaviours pose an evolutionary problem because they are costly to the actor and beneficial to the recipients. Altruistic behaviours can evolve through indirect fitness benefits when directed toward kin. The altruistic nature of anti-predatory behaviours is often difficult to establish because the actor can obtain direct fitness benefits, or the behaviour could result from selfish coercion by others, especially in eusocial animals. Non-eusocial parthenogenetically reproducing aphids form colonies of clone-mates, which are ideal to test the altruistic nature of anti-predatory defence behaviours. Many aphids release cornicle secretions when attacked by natural enemies such as parasitoids. These secretions contain an alarm pheromone that alerts neighbours (clone-mates) of danger, thereby providing indirect fitness benefits to the actor. However, contact with cornicle secretions also hampers an attacker and could provide direct fitness to the actor.


We tested the hypothesis that cornicle secretions are altruistic by assessing direct and indirect fitness consequences of smearing cornicle secretions onto an attacker, and by manipulating the number of clone-mates that could benefit from the behaviour. We observed parasitoids, Aphidius rhopalosiphi, foraging singly in patches of the cereal aphid Sitobion avenae of varied patch size (2, 6, and 12 aphids). Aphids that smeared parasitoids did not benefit from a reduced probability of parasitism, or increase the parasitoids' handling time. Smeared parasitoids, however, spent proportionately more time grooming and less time foraging, which resulted in a decreased host-encounter and oviposition rate within the host patch. In addition, individual smearing rate increased with the number of clone-mates in the colony.


Cornicle secretions of aphids were altruistic against parasitoids, as they provided no direct fitness benefits to secretion-releasing individuals, only indirect fitness benefits through neighbouring clone-mates. Moreover, the use of cornicle secretions was consistent with their altruistic nature, because the occurrence of this behaviour increased with the size of indirect fitness benefits, the number of clone-mates that can benefit. This study provides evidence for a case of kin-directed altruistic defence outside eusocial animals.