Similarities in recognition cues lead to the infiltration of non-nestmates in an ant species
Abstract Chemical cues are among the most important information sharing mechanisms in insect societies, in which cuticular hydrocarbons play a central role – e.g. from nestmate recognition to queen signaling. The nestmate recognition mechanism usually prevents intruders from taking advantage of the resources stored in the nest. However, nestmate recognition is not unconditionally effective and foreign individuals can sometimes infiltrate unrelated nests and take advantage of the colony resources. In this study we investigated the role of overall colony odor profiles on the ability of conspecific workers drifting into unrelated colonies. We hypothesized that drifters would have higher chances of success by infiltrating colonies with the odor profiles most similar to their own nest, avoiding being detected as non-nestmates. By performing a drifting bioassay, we found that workers of the ant Formica fusca infiltrated unrelated conspecific colonies at a rate of 2.4 %, significantly infiltrating colonies displaying CHC profiles most similar to their natal nests. Notably, methyl branched hydrocarbons seem to play a role as recognition cues in this species. In addition, we show that environmental rather than genetic factors are responsible for most contributions on the CHC phenotype, presenting ca. of 50 % and 27.5 % of explained variation respectively, and playing a major role on how worker ants detect and prevent the infiltration of non-nestmates in the colony. Hence, relying on cuticular hydrocarbons similarities could be a profitably evolutionary strategy by which workers can identify conspecific colonies, evade detection by guards and avoid competition with genetic relatives.