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PLoS One. 2013 May 29;8(5):e65107. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065107. Print 2013.

Changes in the hydrocarbon proportions of colony odor and their consequences on nestmate recognition in social wasps.

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Department of Life Sciences and Systems Biology, Università di Torino, Torino, Italy.


In social insects, colonies have exclusive memberships and residents promptly detect and reject non-nestmates. Blends of epicuticular hydrocarbons communicate colony affiliation, but the question remains how social insects use the complex information in the blends to discriminate between nestmates and non-nestmates. To test this we altered colony odor by simulating interspecific nest usurpation. We split Polistes dominulus paper-wasp nests into two halves and assigned a half to the original foundress and the other half to a P. nimphus usurper for 4 days. We then removed foundresses and usurpers from nests and investigated whether emerging P. dominulus workers recognized their never-before-encountered mothers, usurpers and non-nestmates of the two species. Behavioral and chemical analyses of wasps and nests indicated that 1) foundresses marked their nests with their cuticular hydrocarbons; 2) usurpers overmarked foundress marks and 3) emerging workers learned colony odor from nests as the odor of the female that was last on nest. However, notwithstanding colony odor was usurper-biased in usurped nests, workers from these nests recognized their mothers, suggesting that there were pre-imaginal and/or genetically encoded components in colony-odor learning. Surprisingly, workers from usurped nests also erroneously tolerated P. nimphus non-nestmates, suggesting they could not tell odor differences between their P. nimphus usurpers and P. nimphus non-nestmates. Usurpers changed the odors of their nests quantitatively, because the two species had cuticular hydrocarbon profiles that differed only quantitatively. Possibly, P. dominulus workers were unable to detect differences between nestmate and non-nestmate P. nimphus because the concentration of some peaks in these wasps was beyond the range of workers' discriminatory abilities (as stated by Weber's law). Indeed, workers displayed the least discrimination abilities in the usurped nests where the relative odor changes due to usurpation were the largest, suggesting that hydrocarbon variations beyond species-specific ranges can alter discrimination abilities.

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