Altricial Development in Wood-Feeding Cockroaches: The Key Antecedent of Termite Eusociality

  • Christine A. NalepaEmail author


Altricial development, the production of vulnerable, dependent neonates, is regularly associated with high levels of parental care in both vertebrates and invertebrates and has evolved in at least two phylogenetically distant, biparental wood-feeding cockroach genera: Cryptocercus and Salganea. Here I make the case that altricial development was the first deviation from standard hemimetabolous development in the biparental termite ancestor, played a fundamental role in the origin of the termite lineage, and can account for many of the novel traits and functions that constitute eusociality in extant Isoptera. Altricial neonates of subsocial wood feeding cockroaches are small, fragile, incapable of feeding themselves, and costly to rear. However, the type of care these juveniles require does not necessarily have to originate from a parent; consequently other members of the social group have the opportunity to undertake brood care obligations. Altricial development therefore allows for the transition to alloparental care, and has a great deal of explanatory power when the evolution of termite eusociality is framed as a hierarchical two-stage process. Stage 1 alloparental care both increased reproductive output of adults and prolonged the development of young helpers. Combined, this changed the nature of the family: it was composed of a greater number of small, vulnerable juveniles. At the same time however, parents were increasingly specializing in reproduction at the expense of their defensive parental duties. Stage 1 alloparental care, then, necessitated Stage 2, the development of a soldier caste, but it also allowed it. Soldiers are a nutritionally dependent caste, so alloparental feeding would have to be part of the behavioral repertoire before soldiers with specialized defensive mandibles could appear. As eusociality progressed, altricial development formed the operational basis for the prolongation of juvenile morphology, physiology and behavior into later ontogeny, accounting for many aspects of termite life history neglected by current hypotheses. Altricial development reinforces the importance of biparental care and hemimetabolous development in the termite ancestor and is a clear indication that the social environment can significantly influence developmental ontogeny in the lineage. The evolution of termite eusociality is a prime example of how evolution uses existing components in the origin of new systems.


Parental Care Parental Investment Brood Care Biparental Care Alloparental Care 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I thank Jim Hunt and Kiyoto Maekawa for discussion and feedback. Ideas in this paper were presented in 1996 at the 20th International Congress of Entomology (Florence, Italy) and in 2007 at the 55th Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America (San Diego, CA).


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© Springer Netherlands 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Entomology DepartmentNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA

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