Helping out or avoiding risks

Social insects have numerous pathogens that can spread simultaneously in a densely packed colony. Mild exposure to one disease may not increase an individual’s risk of dying, but it does increase the individual’s risk of concurrently contracting another pathogen. Such double diseases are called superinfections, and they lead to death significantly more often than contracting one disease at a time does.

Preventing the spread of a pathogen within a colony is highly important for social insects. Other individuals can treat their sick counterparts either by helping them or by being aggressive. Help can come in the form of grooming, which serves to clean sick individuals of a potential pathogen, or spraying, where infected individuals are hosed off with antimicrobial chemicals. These chemicals are produced in the bodies of certain ant species, which spray the antimicrobials into their surroundings by increasing their internal pressure. On the other hand, aggression appears as biting and dragging of infected animals, which is done to prevent pathogens from spreading deeper into a colony by removing sick individuals from the colony.

wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_ants

Ants are social insects. They live in colonies that can grow to tens of thousands of individuals © Sari Holopainen

To test how colony mates react to sick individuals, Austrian scientists conducted a study on Lasius neglectus ants. The scientists placed mildly sick ants, infected with one of two fungal pathogens, into a colony. The colony also housed healthy individuals used as controls. Sick individuals could therefore encounter healthy individuals, individuals with the same disease, or individuals suffering from the different pathogen. The controls on the other hand ran into other healthy ants or ants suffering from one of the two diseases. The researchers wished to see whether previous infection altered the behavior of the ants when meeting an infected individual. They were also interested in testing whether the ants reacted differently to individuals infected by the same pathogen as to individuals carrying the other pathogen.

The studied ant species is usually not aggressive towards its colony mates. However, during the experiment, infected individuals often began biting and dragging encountered individuals if they were also sick. Healthy individuals did not react to their diseased counterparts in the same way. Diseased individuals also sprayed other infected ants more often than healthy individuals did. Spraying was more common if the diseased individual suffered from the different fungus than did the sprayer. Grooming was most common when sick individuals with the same pathogen crossed paths.

In other words, infected ants are more aggressive towards other disease carriers, but concurrently they can alter their behavior according to the situation, and choose the safest decontamination method available. This is determined by whether the encountered ant is infected by the same or the other pathogen. Grooming requires individuals to be close to each other, but if both ants have the same infection, the risk of a new infection is minimal. Spraying can be done from a greater distance, in which case individuals don’t come into close contact. This helps sick individuals from contracting a superinfection, which would most probably be lethal.

The scientists were also able to determine that this risk aversion pays off, as mildly sick ants were successful at avoiding a superinfection. Both individuals therefore benefit from altering their behavior, also known as behavioral plasticity. This is extremely important for social insects in densely inhabited colonies, where sick individuals cannot be avoided.

Cleaning is not the only way in which colony insects help each other out. Another recent example comes from German scientists, who observed an African ant species (Megaponera analis) to tend to its injured individuals by licking. Their saliva is believed to contain antimicrobial substances that assist healing. The species often raids termite mounds, so an individual’s injury risk is great. Uninjured ants must make the choice of either helping injured counterparts back to the colony for medical assistance or not. Helping increases an uninjured individual’s risk of suffering injury. However, it is in the colony’s interest to treat as many individuals as possible.

A YouTube video showing uninjured ants tending to injured individuals

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