Complex cooperation

Weaver ant will rescue nestmate from spider web

a weaver ant on its nest

Floria Uy and colleagues show that workers of the weaver ant care about their nestmates: when an ant gets entangled in a spider’s web, others are willing to help it. The ants were already known for their ‘living sewing machine’.

The weaver ant or green tree ant, Oecophylla smaragdina, is common in the tropical parts of Asia and Australia. Its presence is clearly visible because of its nests, which stand out as balls of leaves in bushes and trees. The arboreal nests are the result of a special piece of group work, involving not only workers, but also larvae.

weaver ants building their nestTo construct a nest, the ants must glue the leaf edges together. Workers will line up, grasp the edges of two leaves (or two pieces of a long leaf) and draw them together. If the distance between the leaf edges is large, they grab each other and form living chains to bridge the gap. By then shortening the chain, they pull the leaf edges towards each other.


Living sewing machine

They then attach the edges firmly to each other with a ‘living moveable sewing machine’, as described by Ross Crozier. While many workers hold the leaf edges, others join with a mature larva between their jaws.weaver ants use larval silk to construct the nest The workers stimulate the larvae to spin a silk thread and move them zigzag between the leaf edges, stitching the leaves together.

In many ant species, larvae spin silk to make a cocoon in which they pupate. But in the weaver ant, their silk is used for nest construction.

A colony of weaver ants consists of multiple nests in several trees; many ants are running on trails between these nests. In peripheral nests of the colony, soldiers live that guard the boundaries of the territory and defend it against conspecific ants from foreign colonies. On average, a colony will live for eight years and can have as many as half a million inhabitants.

That is a lot, and you would be inclined to think that an ant’s life does not matter that much.

Yet, the ants are concerned when a nestmate that is in danger, Floria Uy and colleagues now show. They discovered a second example of complex cooperation within this species.

Ant in distress

If a weaver ant is trapped in a spider’s web, conspecifics may bite the threads of the web and free the victim, as Uy showed. But an alternative scenario is also possible: ants may attack a worker that is entangled in a spider’s web and kill it. When will the ants rescue a conspecific, and when will they kill it?

Uy, who conducted experiments on the Solomon Islands, put a number of ants next to an ant trail after having wrapped them in spider’s silk; in some cases, the victim was a nestmate of the ants on the trail, in other cases it was from a foreign colony.

She found that ants will always help a nestmate in distress. But for ants from a different colony, the outcome is uncertain: some are rescued, others are killed. That some of them are killed is to be expected: to the residents on the trail, they are intruders and accordingly, they are treated aggressively. The fact that some non-nestmates in distress are helped instead is surprising.

It may be a mistake, the researchers hypothesize. In the study area, ants from neighbouring colonies have a greater chance of being rescued than ants from distant colonies. Ants recognize nestmates and colony mates by smell, and neighbouring colonies may have a rather similar odour.

Willy van Strien

Large: weaver ant on nest. Rushen (via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Small, middle: workers building the nest. Sean.hoyland (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
Small, below: nest with weaver ants. Bernard DUPONT (via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Watch weaver ants building a nest

Uy, F.M.K., J.D. Adcock, S.F. Jeffries & E. Pepere, 2018. Intercolony distance predicts the decision to rescue or attack conspecifics in weaver ants. Insectes Sociaux, online Nov. 3. Doi: 10.1007/s00040-018-0674-z
Crozier, R.H., P.S. Newey, E.A. Schlüns & S.K.A. Robson, 2010. A masterpiece of evolution – Oecophylla weaver ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News 13: 57-71

Helpers in the nest

Thanks to helpers, cichlid mothers acquire more food

In Neolamprologus obscurus, young fis stay with their mother to help

When young of the cichlid species Neolamprologus obscurus have grown up, they are allowed to remain in the territory of their mother for a while because of their help. Hirokazu Tanaka and colleagues wanted to know why that help is important.

Neolamprologus obscurus, a cichlid fish that occurs in Lake Tanganyika in Africa, lives in groups in which each breeding female owns a territory along a steep bank, where she has dug out several cavities under stones. In those safe shelters, she spends almost all her time and she uses them for breeding. She guards her eggs and fry, and chases conspecifics out of her territory.

But her grown up young are allowed to stay. They help her defend the territory and maintain the shelters by removing sand that continuously enters from the edges.

The removal of sand from the shelters is most beneficial to her, Hirokazu Tanaka and colleagues discovered. The shelters not only serve as a safe residence and as a breeding ground, but they are also a means to acquire food. The fish feed on small benthic invertebrates, especially shrimp. These tiny animals move up to the water surface at night to forage, but in the full light of the day they are not safe there and before dawn, they sink back to the bottom to hide in cracks and cavities – such as cavities in which Neolamprologus obscurus lives. The food comes to the fish by itself.

Tanaka shows that the larger a cavity is, the more benthic invertebrates immigrate at dawn. Because of this increased food abundance, it is desirable for a breeding female to have helpers that maintain the shelters and even enlarge them.

Of course, helpers take some of the food that they acquire, so part of the gain is lost for the breeding female. But she still profits, because the more helpers are present to remove sand from the edges of the cavity, the longer those edges can be. And the area and content increase even more: with a double number of diggers, maintaining a cavity with a circumference that is twice as large, the area and the volume become four times larger, and as a consequence, more food is available per fish when more helpers are around.

But there is a limit to the number of helpers a female will tolerate; it will be no more than ten. So, when young fish have become larger, they will disappear from her territory to start for themselves.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Neolamprologus obscurus, helper. ©Hirokazu Tanaka

Tanaka, H., J.G. Frommen & M. Kohda, 2018. Helpers increase food abundance in the territory of a cooperatively breeding fish. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 72: 51. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-018-2450-5
Tanaka, H., J.G. Frommen, L. Engqvist & M. Kohda, 2017. Task-dependent workload adjustment of female breeders in a cooperatively breeding fish. Behavioral Ecology 29: 221–229. Doi: 10.1093/beheco/arx149
Tanaka, H., D. Heg, H. Takeshima, T. Takeyama, S. Awata, M. Nishida & M. Kohda, 2015. Group composition, relatedness, and dispersal in the cooperatively breeding cichlid Neolamprologus obscurus. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 69: 169–181. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-014-1830-8

First aid

Hunting ant workers rescue lightly injured nest-mates

termite-hunting ant Megaponera analis rescues lightly-wounded nest-mates

Groups of the African ant Megaponera analis undertake hunting parties that are risky because of the fierce resistance of the termites that are attacked. Some ant workers get injured, but they are carried back to the nest and treated if possible, Erik Frank and colleagues report.

Workers of the large African ant Megaponera analis, also known as Matabele ant, face a heavy task. The ants prey on termites that they detect and overpower at their foraging sites. The ants approach the termites in a column formation consisting of hundreds of individuals. When the first ants reach a site, they wait until all participants have arrived and then they attack. The large individuals, the majors, break open the protective layer of earth that covers the termites’ foraging site; the small ants, the minors, then go inside to seize, kill, and pull out the termites.

And that is a risky job, as Erik Frank and colleagues write. Termite soldiers with strong head and mandibles will fight fiercely. Some ants, almost all of them being minors, get injured; some ants are bitten off one or more legs or antennas, others are hindered by a termite that clings to them.

The ants limit losses by rescuing many injured nest-mates. After the fight, the ants gather before they jointly return to the nest, because an ant travelling alone easily falls prey to predators, for example spiders. Majors run over the place to pick up and carry dead termites and nest-mates that lag behind. If all ants have joined the column, they start walking. But ants that lost one or two legs and ants with a termite clinging to them are unable to keep up with the group, according to observations and experiments in the field and in the lab. By excreting certain substances they signal to others that they need help.

Majors that are not yet carrying anything will pick up these lightly-injured nest-mates, which tuck in their legs to facilitate transportation.

Ants who are severely injured and can no longer stand on their legs, don’t emit an emergency signal and they don’t let themselves to be picked up: they keep on twisting and turning. These unhappy ants are left behind, so that only victims that have a chance to recover are taken home. Almost all of them safely reach the nest, whereas without help many injured ants would not be able to complete the journey.

As soon as the victims are brought into the nest, they are taken care of. A termites that clings to an ant mostly is pulled off successfully and the ant doesn’t suffer any long-term consequences of the adventure. An ant that lost a leg or antenna receives a thorough treatment: nest mates groom the open wound for a long time, cleaning it and probably also applying antimicrobial substances that they produce in special glands. Experiments show that an ant with an untreated open wound almost always dies, probably due to an infection. But when treated, it usually survives and it will learn to walk on four or five legs as fast as the others – and soon enough, it will join termite raiding parties again.

When heavily injured ants are brought in, which happens only infrequently, they will get no treatment, but are carried out of the nest instead. The ants only help injured nest mates that will survive.

The rescue behaviour in Megaponera analis is unique. It could develop in these ants because they conduct short and space-limited raids on a dangerous prey. There are many casualties, but the injuries are rarely fatal when the victims get help – and help is available. Without rescuing behaviour, the colony would be much smaller and fewer workers would be available to join a raiding party. To give an idea of the importance: the number of ants that are rescued on a day roughly equals the number that is born.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Megaponera analis: major carrying injured nest mate back to the nest. ETF89 (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Videos of Megaponera ants that carry and treat injured nest mates

Frank, E.T., M. Wehrhahn & K.E. Linsenmair, 2018. Wound treatment and selective help in a termite-hunting ant. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285: 20172457. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2457
Frank, E.T., T. Schmitt, T. Hovestadt, O. Mitesser, J. Stiegler, K.E. Linsenmair, 2017. Saving the injured: Rescue behavior in the termite-hunting ant Megaponera analis. Science Advances 3: e1602187. Doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1602187