Symbiosis, Sociality, and Smell

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Science  02 Mar 2001:
Vol. 291, Issue 5509, pp. 1665-1667
DOI: 10.1126/science.291.5509.1665e

The evolutionary theory of kin selection requires that social animals recognize their relatives so that altruistic behavior can be displayed preferentially toward kin. In social insects such as bees and ants, where nest-mates are close relatives, a variety of heritable odor-based recognition mechanisms have been suggested.

Now, in termites, Matsuura has proposed a different kind of cue. The stimulus is still olfactory, but the source is unexpected —symbiotic bacteria inhabiting the insects' gut. The bacterial species present in the gut varies from colony to colony. Feces are routinely used by termites for nest construction and may thus provide the basis for nest-mate recognition.

Manipulation of bacterial composition using antibiotics affected recognition patterns, and termites exposed to bacterial extracts from other colonies were later attacked by their own nest-mates. Thus bacterial symbiosis may have ramifications beyond digestive cooperation. — AMS

Oikos92, 20 (2001).

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