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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Aug 7;276(1668):2847-53. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0498. Epub 2009 May 13.

A chemical signal of offspring quality affects maternal care in a social insect.

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University of Basel, Zoological Institute, Evolutionary Biology, Vesalgasse 1, 4051 Basel, Switzerland.


Begging signals of offspring are condition-dependent cues that are usually predicted to display information about the short-term need (i.e. hunger) to which parents respond by allocating more food. However, recent models and experiments have revealed that parents, depending on the species and context, may respond to signals of quality (i.e. offspring reproductive value) rather than need. Despite the critical importance of this distinction for life history and conflict resolution theory, there is still limited knowledge of alternative functions of offspring signals. In this study, we investigated the communication between offspring and caring females of the common earwig, Forficula auricularia, hypothesizing that offspring chemical cues display information about nutritional condition to which females respond in terms of maternal food provisioning. Consistent with the prediction for a signal of quality we found that mothers exposed to chemical cues from well-fed nymphs foraged significantly more and allocated food to more nymphs compared with females exposed to solvent (control) or chemical cues from poorly fed nymphs. Chemical analysis revealed significant differences in the relative quantities of specific cuticular hydrocarbon compounds between treatments. To our knowledge, this study demonstrates for the first time that an offspring chemical signal reflects nutritional quality and influences maternal care.

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