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DAVIE, Florida – Using two of Florida’s most invasive termite species, scientists have figured out how group-living animals – termites in particular – coordinate their leader-follower behaviors to thrive.
As social insects, the termite queen and aspiring kings directly influence their respective movements for mating success and survival. The key is in the female’s pheromones. In termites, during mating season, winged individuals leave their colonies to find a mate and create a new colony. The female produces a pheromone which allows a male to find her. In this interaction, the female is the leader, while the male is the follower, as both mates are looking for a place to start a colony.
The rules of engagement guiding leader-follower behavior are often species specific. Further, they are believed to result from fine-tuning the two opposing behavioral traits – leading and following – through natural selection.
South Florida offered a unique opportunity to further test this hypothesis, which is why researchers turned to the UF / IFAS Fort Lauderdale REC Termite Lab, where Chouvenc specializes in termite biology. Studies of termite biology provide insight into pest control strategies, but also provide new understanding of complex evolutionary processes.
“In South Florida we have these two established invasive termite species that do a lot of damage to structures and trees,” Chouvenc said. “They sometimes engage in interspecific mating activity, with potential for hybridization, which gave us the perfect opportunity to test this hypothesis.”
“It is difficult to test the hypothesis that the behavioral rules of the leader-follower are finely co-evolved in an animal species. These two behavioral traits are intrinsically linked and difficult to dissect, ”said Nobuaki Mizumoto, who led the study as a postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State University and is now at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.
This new study found that the leader and follower have evolved to expect a set of cues from their partner, and if those expectations aren’t met coordination breaks down, Mizumoto said,
“Our results have implications for how large groups of animals came to coordinate their efforts through natural selection, or how sexual selection shaped gender-specific traits to meet a differential expectation between partners, ”Mizumoto concluded.
Because the two invasive termite species evolved separately for about 18 million years, the leader tracking rule in the two species may be slightly different, explains Chouvenc.
“Despite sharing the same pheromone, female subterranean termites of Formosa produce significantly more pheromones than female subterranean Asian termites,” he said. “We therefore hypothesized that the divergences between the leader and follower rules between the two species would reveal a lack of optimization through fine tuning of evolution.”
This unique approach allowed the team of researchers to show that males of Formosa subterranean termites cannot properly track females of Asian subterranean termites. Meanwhile, males of Asian subterranean termites are quite capable of tracking female subterranean termites from Formosa.
“This asymmetric result was remarkable, as it indicated that male Formosa subterranean termites were not able or motivated to follow females of a low pheromone-producing species. On the other hand, the males of the Asian subterranean termites were perfectly able to follow the females of the Formosa subterranean termites, which produce many more pheromones than these males evolved to follow, ”added Chouvenc.
“In a previous collaborative study, we were able to show that males optimize their movements to follow females, while females adapt their movements based on feedback from the male following them,” Mizumoto said. The present study pointed out that such optimization was the result of evolutionary processes
While the discovery of the two species of termites finding love in Florida remains a concern for their potential impact on our homes, it provides opportunities to test a unique hypothesis, which helps to understand how the coordination behaviors of animals evolved, explains Chouvenc.