How cheating ants get caught red-handed

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Washington, January 9 (ANI): While workers in ant society are known to physically restrain their peers from cheating the queen by having their own offspring, scientists have for the first time found how the cheaters get caught red-handed.

Jurgen Liebig and his colleagues at Arizona State University say that experimental evidence shows that chemical hydrocarbons produced by those sneaky sorts are a dead giveaway of their fertility status.

Published online in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, the findings represent the first direct evidence that cuticular hydrocarbons are the informational basis for the ants' reproductive policing.

Liebig's team had previously shown that workers used hydrocarbons to discriminate between eggs laid by workers and queens, and also for nestmate recognition and sexual attraction.

Since hydrocarbon profiles play important roles in communication, he and his colleagues had a strong suspicion that they would also help catch reproductive cheaters.

With an eye on testing the idea in one ant species called Aphaenogaster cockerelli, the research team mimicked reproductive cheaters by applying a synthetic compound typical of fertile individuals on non-reproductive workers, and that treatment attracted nestmate aggression in colonies where a queen was present.

The researchers said that the same treatment in colonies without a queen, and where workers had begun to reproduce, failed to attract nestmate aggression.

Liebig says that this system for catching cheaters plays an important role in maintaining harmony in the ant world, and it sets an example that we might learn from ourselves.

"The idea that social harmony is dependent on strict systems to prevent and punish cheating individuals seems to apply to most successful societies," he said.

"Understanding what mechanisms are employed within ant societies, which are perhaps the most successful and widespread among all animals, provides a model for understanding the fundamental basis of successful cooperation," he added. (ANI)

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