In order to decrease the risk of pathogen transmission, ants remove corpses from the vicinity of nests, but little is known about the underlying mechanisms. In particular, it is unclear how the odor profile of corpses changes with time since death and how any changes might relate to behavior. We have addressed these questions in the red ant Myrmica rubra, where we asked how the time since death determines the ability of workers to discriminate a dead individual from a live one, and whether dead workers are removed in a similar way when they originate from the same or an alien colony. We found that ants could discriminate alien from nestmate corpses up to 2 days after death, since the former continued to elicit aggressive behavior over that period. For dead nestmates, only 15 % of corpses were removed when freshly killed but this rises to 80 % for corpses between 1 to 6 days post mortem. Using gas chromatography, we found that oleic and linoleic acids, which are absent on freshly killed corpses, appeared post mortem and were in higher quantities on those corpses that were ejected from the nest vicinity. When added to fresh corpses, linoleic and oleic acids, alone or blended, enhanced removal to levels observed for corpses of 2–6 days post-mortem. Thus, oleic and linoleic acids appear to be important cues involved in corpse recognition and necrophoresis over a long timeframe, and we advance the hypothesis that these fatty acids in combination with other cues may also trigger other behaviors such as prey retrieval.
Necrophoresis Ants Myrmica rubraOleic acid Linoleic acid Corpse
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access
We thank Dr. J-C de Biseau and Laurent Grumiau for help and advice with compound identification using GC/MS analyses. We thank Paul Graham for helpful comments on the manuscript. This study was funded by a PhD grant from FRIA (Fonds pour la Recherche dans l’Industrie et dans l’Agriculture) and the Fonds David at Alice van Buuren. C.D. is a senior research associate from the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (F.N.R.S.).
Akino T, Yamaoka R (1996) Origin of oleic acid : corpse recognition signal in the ant. Formica japonica Motschlsky (Hymenoptera : Formicidae). Jpn J Appl Entomol Zool 40:265–271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chouvenc T, Robert A, Sémon E, Bordereau C (2012) Burial behaviour by dealates of the termite Pseudacanthotermes spiniger (Termitidae, Macrotermitinae) induced by chemical signals from termite corpses. Insect Soc 59:119–125. doi:10.1007/s00040-011-0197-3CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Crosland M, Lok C, Wong T et al (1997) Division of labour in a lower termite: the majority of tasks are performed by older workers. Anim Behav 54:999–1012PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dani FR, Cannoni S, Turillazzi S, David Morgan E (1996) Ant repellent effect of the sternal gland secretion Polistes dominulus (Christ) and P. sulcifer (Zimmermann). (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). J Chem Ecol 22:37–48. doi:10.1007/BF02040198PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
D’ Ettore P, Lenoir A (2009) Nestmate recognition. In: Lach L, Parr C, Abbott K (eds) Ant ecology. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
Drees BM, Miller RW, Vinson BS, Georgis R (1992) Susceptibility and behavioral response of red imported fire ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) to selected entomogenous nematodes (Rhabditida: Steinernematidae Heterorhabditidae). J Econ Entomol 85:365–370PubMedGoogle Scholar
Elmes GW (1973) Observations on the density of queens in natural colonies of Myrmica rubra L. (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). J Anim Ecol 42:761–771CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fan Y, Pereira RM, Kilic E et al (2012) Pyrokinin β-neuropeptide affects necrophoretic behavior in fire ants (S. invicta), and expression of β-NP in a mycoinsecticide increases its virulence. PLoS ONE 7:e26924PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Franks N, Blum M, Smith R-K, Allies AB (1990) Behavior and chemical disguise of cuckoo ant Leptothorax kutteri in relation to its host Leptothorax acervorum. J Chem Ecol 16:1431–1444. doi:10.1007/BF01014079PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Liebig J, Peeters C, Oldham NJ et al (2000) Are variations in cuticular hydrocarbons of queens and workers a reliable signal of fertility in the ant Harpegnathos saltator? Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 97:4124–4131. doi:10.1073/pnas.97.8.4124PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
López-Riquelme GO, Malo EA, Cruz-LóPez L, Fanjul-Moles ML (2006) Antennal olfactory sensitivity in response to task-related odours of three castes of the ant Atta mexicana (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Physiol Entomol 31:353–360. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3032.2006.00526.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Renucci M, Tirard A, Provost E (2010) Complex undertaking behavior in Temnothorax lichtensteini ant colonies: from corpse-burying behavior to necrophoric behavior. Insect Soc 58:9–16. doi:10.1007/s00040-010-0109-yCrossRefGoogle Scholar