Polyrhachis lama, a parasitic ant with an exceptional mode of social integration


Social parasitism is a common phenomenon amongst ants that occurs in manifold variations with differing levels of parasite–host integration. Particularly, high levels of social integration occur amongst closely related species (Emery’s rule), which form mixed colonies with their hosts and comprise the vast majority of social parasites. Considerable lower levels of integration are typically found amongst unrelated species that live in clearly separated colonies. The formicine ant Polyrhachis lama, however, parasitises a phylogenetically distant host species, Diacamma sp. of the subfamily Ponerinae, but lives spatially mixed with the host colonies. Studies on integration and communication have indicated that P. lama shows a high degree of host integration. However, the allocation of brood care behaviour, a central aspect of parasite integration, has not been studied. Because all known ant social parasites that are fully mixed with their host colonies are also true brood parasites, we investigated the integration of P. lama brood. Our results demonstrate that the parasite brood has a high degree of spatial integration, although it remains functionally separated regarding nutritive brood care. This can be attributed to behavioural and morphological differences between the phylogenetically distant species. The observed spatial confinement of parasite brood, however, is most likely due to an unusual method of chemical host integration. The parasite brood remains accepted in the Diacamma colonies only under the presence of adult parasites. Altogether, this suggests an active mechanism of chemical integration based on the acceptance allomones originating from P. lama workers.

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The experiments reported in this study complied with German laws. We would like to thank Alfred Buschinger for critical comments that improved this paper.

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Correspondence to V. Witte.

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Witte, V., Lehmann, L., Lustig, A. et al. Polyrhachis lama, a parasitic ant with an exceptional mode of social integration. Insect. Soc. 56, 301–307 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00040-009-0024-2

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  • Social parasites
  • Brood parasitism
  • Integration mechanisms
  • Emery’s rule