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Anim Behav. 1999 Nov;58(5):1117-1122.

Policing behaviour towards virgin egg layers in a polygynous ponerine ant.

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Laboratory of Entomology, K. U. Leuven


The majority of colonies of Gnamptogenys menadensis in Sulawesi lack queens and several workers ('gamergates') mate and reproduce instead. Virgin workers lay morphologically specialized trophic eggs which are fed to larvae. Some of these virgins switch to male eggs when gamergates are experimentally removed. Three distinct patterns of oogenesis thus result in: (1) trophic eggs; (2) reproductive eggs (unfertilized) laid by virgin workers; and (3) reproductive eggs laid by gamergates, whose ovarioles are always longer than those of virgin workers. We investigated the behavioural regulation of ovarian activity in virgin workers by temporarily excluding gamergates. In 12 groups of 35-45 virgins, a few workers became dominant and started to lay reproductive eggs. Once gamergates were reintroduced, sterile workers attacked and immobilized workers with enlarged ovaries (confirmed by dissection of 173 individuals), which often died as a result. Gamergates were never aggressive towards new egg layers. Aggression was not triggered by divergence in colony odours, as it was absent in control experiments in which six colonies were divided in half, with each part containing gamergates, and reunited after 50 days. Our results show that sterile workers discriminate against new egg layers, given that their ovaries are not as developed as those of gamergates. Olfactory detection of different levels of ovarian activity thus appears possible. Mesh experiments indicated that the putative pheromones are nonvolatile and require physical contact for transmission. Aggressive behaviour directed at reproducing workers can be interpreted as worker policing. In G. menadensis, worker policing results in virgins laying only trophic eggs. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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