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Proc Biol Sci. Sep 7, 2002; 269(1502): 1811–1819.
PMCID: PMC1691100

Trade-offs in group living: transmission and disease resistance in leaf-cutting ants.

Abstract

Sociality can be associated with significant costs due to the increased risk of disease transmission. However, in some organisms the costs may be offset by benefits due to improvements in defences against parasites. To examine this possible trade-off between infection risk and disease resistance, we used Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants and the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae as the model system. Ants exposed to the parasite were found to have substantially improved survival when they were kept with nest-mates, while the cost of being in a group in terms of increased disease transmission was very low. The efficiency of transmission is described by the transmission parameter, which decreased with increasing host density showing that transmission rates are inversely density dependent. Both grooming and antibiotic secretions appeared to be important in resistance against the parasite, with the defences of small workers being particularly effective. The results indicate that leaf-cutting ant colonies may have much greater resistance to disease than would be predicted from the high densities of host individuals within them. Unlike most organisms, group living in these ants may actually be associated with a net benefit in terms of disease dynamics.

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Selected References

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