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Am Nat. 2014 Oct;184(4):500-9. doi: 10.1086/677927.

Mimicry and eavesdropping enable a new form of social parasitism in ants.

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Department of Biological Sciences, George Washington University, Washington, DC.


Social parasitism is defined by the exploitation of the social mechanisms of one society by another whole society. Here, we use quantitative ecological data and experiments to identify the components of a new form of social parasitism by the recently discovered "mirror turtle ant," Cephalotes specularis. We show that C. specularis workers visually mimic and actively avoid contact with foragers of the hyperaggressive host ant Crematogaster ampla, allowing them to move freely in the extensive and otherwise defended foraging networks of host colonies. Workers from parasite colonies have immediate access to these networks by nesting exclusively within host territories, and 89% of all potential host territories were parasitized. Inside the network, parasite workers eavesdrop on the host's trail pheromones to locate and exploit food resources that are defended by the host to the exclusion of all other ants. Experiments demonstrated the unprecedented capacity of the parasite for superior foraging performance on its host's pheromone trails than on trails of its own. Considered together, the apparent Batesian-Wallacian mimicry, pheromone-based interceptive eavesdropping, kleptoparasitism, and xenobiotic nesting ecology displayed by C. specularis within the territory and foraging network of a host ant represents a novel adaptive syndrome for social exploitation.

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