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Open Access Research article

The scent of supercolonies: the discovery, synthesis and behavioural verification of ant colony recognition cues

Miriam Brandt12, Ellen van Wilgenburg13, Robert Sulc4, Kenneth J Shea4 and Neil D Tsutsui1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, 137 Mulford Hall #3114, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3114, USA

2 Project Management Jülich, Research Centre Jülich GmbH, 52425 Jülich, Germany

3 Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

4 Department of Chemistry, 5042D Fredrick Reines Hall, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697, USA

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BMC Biology 2009, 7:71  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-71

Published: 28 October 2009

Abstract

Background

Ants form highly social and cooperative colonies that compete, and often fight, against other such colonies, both intra- and interspecifically. Some invasive ants take sociality to an extreme, forming geographically massive 'supercolonies' across thousands of kilometres. The success of social insects generally, as well as invasive ants in particular, stems from the sophisticated mechanisms used to accurately and precisely distinguish colonymates from non-colonymates. Surprisingly, however, the specific chemicals used for this recognition are virtually undescribed.

Results

Here, we report the discovery, chemical synthesis and behavioural testing of the colonymate recognition cues used by the widespread and invasive Argentine ant (Linepithema humile). By synthesizing pure versions of these chemicals in the laboratory and testing them in behavioural assays, we show that these compounds trigger aggression among normally amicable nestmates, but control hydrocarbons do not. Furthermore, behavioural testing across multiple different supercolonies reveals that the reaction to individual compounds varies from colony to colony -- the expected reaction to true colony recognition labels. Our results also show that both quantitative and qualitative changes to cuticular hydrocarbon profiles can trigger aggression among nestmates. These data point the way for the development of new environmentally-friendly control strategies based on the species-specific manipulation of aggressive behaviour.

Conclusion

Overall, our findings reveal the identity of specific chemicals used for colonymate recognition by the invasive Argentine ants. Although the particular chemicals used by other ants may differ, the patterns reported here are likely to be true for ants generally. As almost all invasive ants display widespread unicoloniality in their introduced ranges, our findings are particularly relevant for our understanding of the biology of these damaging invaders.