Joint forces against brood parasite

When yellow warbler is warning, red-winged blackbird will attack

Red-winged blackbird eavesdrops on yellow warbler's alarm call

The yellow warbler utters a specific alarm call when a brood parasite is nearby. The red-winged blackbird picks up the signal and attacks, as Shelby Lawson and colleagues write. Together, the birds protect their nests.

Brown-headed cowird parasites on nests of songbirdsA bird’s nest with eggs or young is vulnerable. One of the dangers is that a heterospecific bird will lay an egg in it and charge the parents with the care of a foster young, like the cuckoo does. The red-winged blackbird, which breeds in wet areas in North and Central America, runs such risk. Here the brown-headed cowbird is the ‘cuckoo’, the brood parasite.

Although a young cowbird, unlike a cuckoo chick, does not eject its foster brothers and sisters out of the nest, its presence is to their detriment. The foreign chick demands so much attention that the legitimate young will suffer and starve or fledge in a bad condition.

So, the red-winged blackbird must keep the cowbird out of its nest. It takes advantage of the vigilance of the yellow warbler, another passerine bird that is visited by the cowbird, Shelby Lawson and colleagues show. The yellow warbler, in turn, takes advantage of the aggression of the redwing.


Yellow warbler utters specific alarm call when brood parasite is presentWhen yellow warblers detect a brown-headed cowbird, they utter a specific alarm signal, a ‘seet’ call. Upon hearing that call, all females respond appropriately: they immediately return to their nest (if they were not already there), repeat the seet and sit tightly on their clutch. As a consequence, a cowbird has no access.

Yellow warblers utter the seet call only in response to the brood parasite and only during the breeding period. To warn of predators, they have a different signal, and upon hearing that call, females will change perches and remain alert, but they won’t return to the nest. The combination of the specific alarm signal for brood parasites and the appropriate response of females is unique.

The researchers wondered whether red-winged blackbirds eavesdrop on that specific signal and take advantage of it. They play backed different sounds nearby redwings’ nests and observed their responses.

Both redwing males and females became aggressive upon hearing the seet of yellow warblers and attacked the speaker. They reacted as heated as in response to the chatter of brown-headed cowbirds. Also the call of a blue jay, a nest predator, aroused their aggression. Apparently, the response to the seet call is a general defence against various dangers that threaten a nest. The birds neglected the song of an innocent songbird.

Chatter of other redwings elicited the strongest defence response; the birds seem to consider conspecifics that invade their territory to be the greatest risk.


The yellow warblers’ signal to warn of brood parasites is picked up by red-winged blackbirds, which respond by approaching the danger. This is to the benefit of yellow warblers: previous research had shown that their nests suffer less from parasitism by cowbirds if they breed in the neighbourhood of red-winged blackbirds. Redwings and yellow warblers often nest in loose aggregations; together they are able to resist the brood parasite.

So far, the red-winged blackbird appears to be the only bird species that understands and responds to yellow warblers’ warning of brood parasites.

Willy van Strien

Large: Red-winged blackbird. Brian Gratwicke. (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)
Small, upper: Female brown-headed cowbird. Ryan Hodnett (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)
Small, lower: Male yellow warbler. Mykola Swarnyk (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Researchers tell about their work on YouTube

Lawson, S.L., J.K. Enos, N.C. Mendes, S.A. Gill & M.E. Hauber, 2020. Heterospecific eavesdropping on an anti-parasitic referential alarm call. Communications Biology 3: 143 . Doi: 10.1038/s42003-020-0875-7
Gill, S.A. & S.G. Sealy, 2004. Functional reference in an alarm signal given during nest defence: seet calls of yellow warblers denote brood-parasitic brown-headed cowbirds. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 5671-80. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-003-0736-7
Clark, K.L. & R.J Robertson, 1979. Spatial and temporal multi-species nesting aggregations in birds as anti-parasite and anti-predator defenses. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 5: 359-371. Doi: 10.1007/BF00292524

Upside-down jellyfish stings at a distance

Mucus contains numerous stinging-cell structures

Upside-down jellyfish releases mucus containing stinging cell masses

The water around upside-down jellyfish is dangerous for small animals and itching for snorkelers. Mobile cell structures, released by the jellyfish, are responsible, as Cheryl Ames and colleagues show.

The upside-down jellyfish Cassiopea xamachana doesn’t swim like jellyfish normally do, but settles upside down on muddy soils of mangrove forests, seagrass beds or shallow bays, its eight oral arms with exuberantly branched flaps facing upward. These jellyfish occur in warm parts of the western Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, often in large groups.

The habit of lying on the bottom is not the only odd trait of this animal. It is also unusual in hosting unicellular organisms inside its body, the so-called zooxanthellae. Like plants, these organisms convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen, using energy from sunlight. They donate part of the carbohydrates to the jellyfish in exchange for their comfortable and safe accommodation.

And then there is a third peculiarity: the water surrounding a group of upside-down jellyfish ‘stings’, as snorkelers know. Cheryl Ames and colleagues discovered how the upside-down jellyfish is responsible.

Mobile cell structures

The carbohydrates that upside-down jellyfish receive from the resident microorganisms are the main source of energy. But the jellyfish also need proteins. That is why they supplement the diet with animal food.

To capture prey, jellyfish use stinging cells. These cells contain stinging capsules, ‘harpoons’, and are filled with a poison blend; the harpoons are able paralyze or kill small critters. Their stings also scare off enemies.

Upside-down jelly has stinging cells on its oral arms. The animal is pulsating, causing water movements that drive prey to the arms, where it is trapped. But, unlike other jellies, the upside-down jellyfish also is able to sting at a distance. How?

If prey is around or if the jellyfish is disturbed, it releases large amounts of mucus, which contain microscopic spherical bodies with an irregular surface, as the current research shows in detail. The bodies consist of an outer cell layer, with stinging cells and ciliated epithelial cells. The content is gelatinous like the jellyfish itself; often zooxanthellae are present, but whether they are active and provide carbohydrates is unknown.


The cell structures, which the researchers have termed cassiosomes, are produced in large quantities on the jellyfish’s arms. Whenever disturbed, the jelly starts emitting them after five minutes in a mucus cloud and continues for hours. Thanks to the cilia, the spherical bodies are motile. They swim around in the mucus for fifteen minutes and then sink down. They go on rotating and displacing for days, and gradually become smoother and smaller to eventually disintegrate after ten days.

The cassiosomes are capable of killing prey animals, laboratory tests show. Brine shrimp, for example, is often instantly killed upon contact with the cell structures.

While doing their work, the researchers experienced that the water in the test tanks was indeed stinging.

Of all peculiarities that upside-down jellyfish possess, this may well be the strangest: loose jellyfish pieces that remain alive for days independently of the main body, move around and help capture prey and scare enemies. The researchers now know that a few closely related jellyfish species release similar small ‘grenades’.

The cell masses in the mucus of upside-down jellyfish had been seen before, at the beginning of the twentieth century, but were thought to be parasites. Nobody could not fancy by that time that it was jellyfish tissue.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Bjoertvedt (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ames, C.L., A.M.L. Klompen, K. Badhiwala, K. Muffett, A.J. Reft, M. Kumar, J.D. Janssen, J.N. Schultzhaus, L.D. Field, M.E. Muroski, N. Bezio, J.T. Robinson, D.H. Leary, P. Cartwright, A.G. Collins & G.J. Vora, 2020. Cassiosomes are stinging-cell structures in the mucus of the upside-down jellyfish Cassiopea xamachana. Communications Biology 3: 67. Doi: 10.1038/s42003-020-0777-8

From reliable source?

Nuthatch transmits indirect information only partially

red-breasted nuthatch eavesdrops on black-capped chickadee

The red-breasted nuthatch understands the alarm call of black-capped chickadees perfectly. But it doesn’t propagate all the information that it contains in its own call, as Nora Carlson and colleagues show.

An owl that is perched on a tree branch during daytime does not pose an immediate threat to songbirds. Yet, they would rather not have it in their neighbourhood. By making a lot of fuss with a group, which is called mobbing, they try to bully the predator away.

This behaviour is also exhibited by the red-breasted nuthatch from North America. If the bird is aware of an owl being around, it will recruit conspecifics to participate in mobbing. In its mobbing call, it encodes how dangerous the owl is that has to be chased away, as Nora Carslon and colleagues write. At least: if the nuthatch itself observed the enemy.


That is because not all owls pose similar threats. The great horned owl, a large bird about half a meter in length, is not agile enough to easily catch a songbird; it is therefore not very threatening. The small, agile northern pygmy owl is much more dangerous.

Accordingly, nuthatches react differently to hearing either great horned owl or pygmy owl, as appeared from playback experiments in which the researchers exposed the songbirds to the calls of both predators. Upon hearing a pygmy owl, the mobbing call of nuthatches consists of shorter, higher-pitched calls that are uttered at higher rate than after hearing a great horned owl. Their conspecifics then are more aroused and exhibit mobbing behaviour for longer and more intensively – in this case against the speakers that were used by the researchers.

Consequently, the songbirds spend their time and energy mainly in chasing away the most dangerous enemies.


black-capped chickadee encodes threat level in its alarm callNuthatches not only rely on their own ears; they also make use of the vigilance of other songbirds and eavesdrop on their alarm calls.

The researchers had shown previously how they respond appropriately to mobbing calls of black-capped chickadees, which also encode whether they face a less dangerous great horned owl or a more dangerous northern pygmy owl. When nuthatches hear chickadees calling in response to pygmy owl, they make more fuss and they will also produce more mobbing calls than when they hear chickadees’ response to great horned owl. So, they understand the message of chickadees very well.

But despite that understanding, nuthatches don’t propagate in their own mobbing call the level of danger according to chickadees, like they do after observing the enemy themselves. If the information is from chickadees, they will not indicate how dangerous the enemy is; their mobbing call is intermediate in call length, pitch and rate at high and low risk.

Less reliable

And perhaps, this is not so bad. Although nuthatches and chickadees share many predators, they are not equally vulnerable to those enemies, due to their different lifestyles. How chickadees perceive and communicate the threat of different enemies can differ from how nuthatches would estimate the level of danger, making the information obtained from chickadees a bit less reliable.

Willy van Strien

Large: red-breasted nuthatch. Cephas (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Small: black-capped chickadee. Shanthanu Bhardwaj (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Carlson, N.V., E. Greene & C.N. Templeton, 2020. Nuthatches vary their alarm calls based upon the source of the eavesdropped signals. Nature Communications 11: 526. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-14414-w
Templeton, C.N. & E. Greene, 2007. Nuthatches eavesdrop on variations in heterospecific chickadee mobbing alarm calls. PNAS 104: 5479-5482. Doi: 10.1073_pnas.0605183104
Templeton, C.N., E. Greene & K. Davis, 2005. Allometry of alarm calls: black-capped chickadees encode information about predator size. Science 308: 1934-1937. Doi: 10.1126/science.1108841

Peaceful together

Dangerous bullet ant and defensive bee tolerate each other

the bullet ant Paraponera clavata and a stingless bee tolerate each other

The bullet ant is not a friendly animal, the stingless bee defends its nest fanatically. Still, these two fighters live smoothly together, Adele Bordoni and colleagues report.

Just like honey bees, stingless bees are social insects. They construct their nest in a cavity, but are unable to dig out their own cavity. So, they exploit an existing one, and they often choose a bigger nest of other social insects, for instance termites. This offers a convenient home, because the host guarantees a proper nest climate.

stingless bee Partamona testacea builds its nest in an ants' nestThe small stingless bee Partamona testacea, which occurs in the Amazon in South America, builds its nest in an ants’ nest. That may be the nest of harmless fungus growing leaf cutter ants, but they also inhabit nests of the bullet ant Paraponera clavata, as Adele Bordoni and colleagues report. A weird choice at first sight, because the bullet ant is not quite friendly.

Large jaws

The bullet ant will aggressively attack as soon as it feels threatened. Its sting is known to be one  of the most painful experiences you can have in nature. In addition, it hunts for insects, which it preys upon, and it has large jaws. If you also realise that the bee is much smaller, you would expect it to avoid the nest of bullet ants. But instead, it enters it to make a home.

And things are going well, Bordoni shows. In the lab, the researchers placed a bullet ant and a bee together in a petri dish. The fierce ant behaved only a little aggressively and did not attack the bee. If the bee was from a nest within the ant’s nest, the ant was even less aggressive. Biting and stinging were highly uncommon.


Conversely, stingless bees also are tolerant. They defend their colony fanatically, as the researchers observed at an ants’ nest with inhabiting bee colony; the bullet ant builds its nest at the base of a tree. When they introduced an ant at the bees’ nest entrance, bee workers grabbed that ant, dragged it deeper inside the nest and covered it with resin, so that it was not able to move anymore.

But a bullet ant will not enter a bees’ nest voluntarily. An ant may pass the entrance, where always bee guards are present to deter invaders. And then the bees will not attack. When a bullet ant passes by, the guards were seen to retreat and to reposition when the ant was gone. When the ant passing by and the bee are from different ants’ nests, the bee guards reposition faster; in that case, they are a bit more vigilant.


Apparently, the dangerous bullet ant and the defensive stingless bee Partamona testacea recognize each other as familiar species, and they also discern individuals of an associated nest from foreigners. They probably know each other’s body odour. They live smoothly together without bothering each other, and it is to the bees’ advantage that the ants protect and defend their nest; maybe, the bees participate in nest defence with their vigilant guards.

Willy van Strien

Large: Paraponera clavata. Graham Wise (Via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Small: nest entrance of Partamona testacea ©Giorgia Mocilnik

Bordoni, A., G. Mocilnik, G. Forni, M. Bercigli, C.D.V. Giove, A. Luchetti, S. Turillazzi, L. Dapporto, & M. Marconi, 2019. Two aggressive neighbours living peacefully: the nesting association between a stingless bee and the bullet ant. Insectes Sociaux, online November 30. Doi: 10.1007/s00040-019-00733-9

Hidden eggs

Blue tit covers her clutch in case of danger

When a predator is around, female blue tits will hide their eggs

Are there any signs indicating that a predator is nearby? In that case, it is more likely that blue tit females will conceal the eggs, Irene Saavedra and colleagues show.

During the egg-laying period, blue tit females add a new egg to their clutch every day, and it was known that they sometimes deposit nest material on the eggs. When the clutch is completed, they start incubating. From that moment on, they no longer will cover the eggs, but are sitting on them continuously. Their male partners will bring them food.

Why do some females take the trouble to cover their clutch during the egg-laying period? One of the reasons, Irene Saavedra and colleagues hypothesized, may be to hide the eggs from predators. Blue tits breed in tree cavities, and also use nest boxes. A closed nest is safer than an open nest, such as that of a blackbird: larger predators cannot enter. But perhaps blue tit females take extra protective measures if needed.


Experiments confirmed the hypothesis. During the egg-laying period, the biologists placed a piece of absorbent paper soaked with the urine and the anal gland fluid of a ferret, a marten-like predator, in a number of nest boxes; they pushed it between the floor and the nest. Such paper emits a strong scent. They already knew that blue tits recognize that scent and realize that it indicates danger. As a control, they placed a piece of paper with lemon scent or odourless wet paper in other nest boxes.

The blue tit mothers responded to the pungent predator’s smell. If a next box contained the scent, the chance that the occupant covered her clutch was higher than if a lemon odour was present or no odour at all. So, covering the eggs appears to be a measure to protect them if a predator is nearby; the tits may however have additional reasons to cover their clutch.

Whether the concealment helps in practice has not yet been investigated. It will not always do, because if a predator searches the nest thoroughly, he may find the hidden eggs.

Willy van Strien

Photo: N.P. Holmes (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Saavedra, I. & L. Amo, 2019. Egg concealment is an antipredatory strategy in a cavity-nesting bird. Ethology, 5 augustus online. Doi: 10.1111/eth.12932
Amo, L., I. Galván, G. Tomás & J.J. Sanz, 2008. Predator odour recognition and avoidance in a songbird. Functional Ecology 22: 289-293. Doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2435.2007.01361.x

Vine avoids spider mites

Tendrils curl away from herbivore-infested plants

Vine Cayratia japonica prevents spider mites from invading

When the Asian climbing plant Cayratia japonica stretches its tendrils to other plants, it is careful. The tendrils withdraw as soon as they detect the presence of spider mite, as Tomoya Nakai & Shuichi Yano observed.

The Asian vine Cayratia japonica is an excellent climber: in America, where it was introduced, it is known as bushkiller. Tendrils of the plant coil around stems of neighboring plants, enabling the vine to grow towards the light. The tendrils grab onto everything they can.

Well, not everything really. The tendrils withdraw when they touch upon a plant that is infested with two-spotted spider mite, Tomoya Nakai & Shuichi Yano show. Two-spotted spider mite or red spider mite (Tetranychus urticae) is a small arachnid hat sucks up plant sap from leaves, which often don’t survive it. The mites occur on hundreds of plant species. If their number at some place is too high, they will walk to another place. As they follow each other’s trails, a group will soon aggregate at this new site.

Spider mite web

Because of its physical contact with other plants, a vine could easily get infested by these harmful critters. But Cayratia japonica appears to have an effective way to prevent mites from invading. As soon as a tendril touches a plant that is occupied by mites, it withdraws and curls away from the infested plant. The researchers could show this in the lab, by placing a number of vines each next to a bean plant that was either clean or bearing many mites. They filmed the movement of the vine’s tendrils using time-lapse photography, making one film frame per minute.

The next question was: what cue does a tendril use to detect the presence of spider mite? Does it pick up the volatile compounds that a bean plant releases into the air when infested? Or does it feel the web with which the mites cover the plant surface to be safe underneath from predators?

Experiments showed that the volatile compounds released by infested bean plants have no effect on the stretching tendrils. But mite silk does: after contact with a spider mite web, the tendrils immediately withdraw. Nakai and Yano also tried spider silk, but the tendrils did not respond to it. The vine thus responds directly and specifically to the presence of spider mite.

This reduces the chance that mites disperse in groups from support plants to the climbing plant. A few of them will cross over during the short contact, but they are not save without the web and will disappear.

Willy van Strien

Poto: 石川 Shihchuan (via Flickr. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Nakai, T. & S. Yano, 2019. Vines avoid coiling around neighbouring plants infested by polyphagous mites. Scientific Reports 9: 6589. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-43101-0

Suicidal repair team

Young aphids die when closing a hole in their nest

Soldier nymphs in Nipponaphis monzeni repair their nest with their body fluid

Japanese aphids, Nipponaphis monzeni, inhabit galls on hazel. A hole in the gall wall would mean the end of the colony living there, were it not for aphid soldiers that give their lives to close it. Mayako Kutsukake and colleagues show how.

The Japanese aphid Nipponaphis monzeni is a social species, living in colonies. Juveniles, called nymphs, serve as soldiers for a period before they become adults and reproduce. It is their task to defend the nest, which is located in galls on the branches of evergreen witch hazel (Distylium racemosum), and to repair it in case of damage.

To close a hole, they show a spectacular and unique behaviour. In a self-destructive action, they discharge their body fluid to plug the gap. The liquid solidifies, forming a scab. Mayako Kutsukake and colleagues were curious about the mechanism.

Vulnerable nest

Colonies of Nipponaphis monzeni are founded by females that reproduce parthenogenetically. A colony of sisters is formed that are genetically identical and produce identical daughters.

gall on hazel in which Nipponaphis monzeni livesThe aphids induce the hazel on which they live to form a closed, hollow tumour, a gall. The animals inhabit this gall, sucking plant sap from the inner wall; in this phase, they are wingless. The gall remains small for a long time, but after three to five years it begins to grow rapidly during spring months and the following summer, it is fully grown – up to eight centimetres long – and home to thousands of aphids.

Winged aphids then appear in autumn. They make an opening in the wall and fly away to a second host tree, an oak, where they mate and produce a new generation of colony foundresses.

A full-grown gall has a lignified, hard wall, offering safety. But during growth, the wall consists of soft plant tissue and the nest is vulnerable. Moth caterpillars consuming hazel tree leaves easily tunnel into such gall, ingesting aphids as well. The soldiers will not tolerate this and attack the enemy: they climb onto it and sting it to death with their mouth parts.

But the hole that the caterpillar gnawed in the gall wall still remains. It has to be closed, otherwise enemies or pathogens may invade, or the nest may desiccate.

Skilful plastering

Japanese researchers had already shown how the soldier nymphs repair the hole with a self-sacrificing behaviour. Dozens or hundreds of them gather around the hole and eject large amounts of white body fluid (hemolymph, which is comparable to our blood) through two tubes on the abdomen. They mix the secretion with their legs and skilfully plaster it over the hole. Some soldiers are buried, others are locked out in the process. And all shrivel after losing their body fluid and will die.

Any way, the hole is fixed; the plug hardens and turns black. As a result, the colony is likely to survive the damage. After the sealing, the gall wall is healed, as the soldiers trigger the tree to cover the plasterwork on the inside by regenerating plant tissue.


Now, Kutsukake investigated the substances with which the soldiers repair a hole. The body fluid, she shows, contains many peculiar large cells of a hitherto unknown type that are packed with fat droplets and the enzyme phenoloxidase; the fluid contains long proteins and tyrosine, an amino acid.

When the soldiers discharge their body fluid, the cells rupture and the fat globules are released; the soldiers plug the gap immediately with a soft lipidic clot. At the same time, the other components come into contact with each other, and a coagulation process starts in which the proteins are linked to form a network that reinforces the lipid plug so that it becomes a scab.

The researchers assume that the process is derived from the process by which wounds heal. But in soldier nymphs’ hemolymph, the components are accumulated in extremely large quantities, far beyond what is necessary for wound healing.

With their unique repair behaviour, the soldier nymphs of Nipponaphis monzeni exhibit extreme altruism to defend the colony: they give their lives. Thanks to this sacrifice, a large part of their family survives. Otherwise the entire colony would have been lost.

Willy van Strien

Photos : ©Mayako Kutsukake
Large: Nipponaphis monzeni soldier nymphs plastering their hemolymphe over a hole
Small: gall in which Nipponaphis monzeni lives

On YouTube, the researchers show how soldiers fix a hole in the gall wall

Kutsukake, M., M. Moriyama, S. Shigenobu, X-Y. Meng, N. Nikoh, C. Noda, S. Kobayashi & T. Fukatsu, 2019. Exaggeration and cooption of innate immunity for social defense. PNAS, 15 april online. Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1900917116
Kutsukake, M., H. Shibao, K. Uematsu & T. Fukatsu, 2009. Scab formation and wound healing of plant tissue by soldier aphid. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276: 1555-1563. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1628
Kurosu, U., S. Aoki & T. Fukatsu, 2003. Self-sacrificing gall repair by aphid nymphs. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B (Suppl.) 270: S12-S14. Doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2003.0026

Young rebels

Ant larvae help to resist hostile take-over

The ant Formica fusca can resist parasites

When the nest of the ant Formica fusca is taken over by a parasitic queen of another species, the colony is lost. But the larvae help to limit the damage, according to Unni Pulliainen and colleagues.

An ants’ nest contains a large workforce serving the queen, which has the exclusive task to reproduce. Worker ants feed the queen and take care of her offspring, keep the nest clean and defend it. Their diligence attracts the attention of queens of other ant species that have not yet workers and for that reason could use some help. The black ant Formica fusca often suffers from such queens, which may invade a nest to exploit the workforce – thereby destroying the colony. But the host may resist, Unni Pulliainen and colleagues report.


If a hostile queen tries to enter a nest of Formica fusca, which lives in clear-cut forest areas and along forest edges in Europe and parts of southern Asia and Africa, the workers may detect her and kill her. But that doesn’t always happen; sometimes, they accept her.

Once she’s inside, she can go on. She kills the resident queen or queens – in Formica fusca, a few queens usually live together in one colony – and she will start laying eggs. The workers have to raise her offspring as if they were the offspring of their own queen. The foreign queen, which outlives the workers, gradually acquires her own workers, while the original workers die. By temporarily parasitizing the Formica fusca colony, she founds her own.


But the enslaved workers can limit the damage by sabotaging. The workers can remove the foreign eggs. And the orphan ant larvae seem to help.

Ant larvae sometimes eat ant eggs, and Pulliainen wanted to know if Formica fusca larvae might be keen to consume the eggs of a foreign queen. In experiments, she offered larvae one egg each, either of their own queen or of a foreign queen, which belonged either to a parasitic species or to an innocent species that never invades other ants’ nests.

The larvae never consumed an egg of their own queen. But when they were given an egg from a parasitic queen, they consumed it in one in ten cases; eggs of an foreign innocent queen were consumed less often.


The feeding behaviour of the larvae, albeit not very spectacular, may help to limit the damage. The eggs are nutritious and their consumption may increase the orphan larvae’s chance of survival. Male larvae can leave to reproduce as adults. And some of the female larvae will be future queens, which may found a new colony elsewhere. Female larvae destined to become workers can be successful too. They are not able to mate, but they can produce some sons, as sons develop from unfertilized eggs. The colony may be lost, but some larvae still have a future.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Formica fusca. Mathias Krumbholz (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pulliainen, U., H. Helanterä, L. Sundström & E. Schultner, 2019. The possible role of ant larvae in the defence against social parasites. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 286: 20182867. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.2867
Chernenko, A., M. Vidal-Garcia, H. Helanterä & L. Sundström, 2013. Colony take-over and brood survival in temporary social parasite of the ant genus Formica. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 67: 727-735. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-013-1496-7
Chernenko, A., H. Helanterä & L. Sundström, 2011. Egg Recognition and Social Parasitism in Formica Ants. Ethology 117: 1081-1092. Doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2011.01972.x

Frightening days

Crayfish avoid light when renewing their armour

red swamp crayfish is anxious when moulting

Normally, the red swamp crayfish is rather fearless. But if it has to replace its carapace with a new one, its bravery disappears, as Julien Bacqué-Cazenave and colleagues report.

Crustaceans do not have a skeleton inside their body, like we do. Instead, they have a carapace, an external skeleton. This sturdy box in which they are packed protects them from physical harm. But there is a drawback: the carapace limits body growth. That is why the animals must, from time to time, replace their carapace with a larger one. The old one is shed, a new one is formed.

That is no trifle, as Julien Bacqué-Cazenave and colleagues show.

Process takes a month

The researchers wanted to know how the red swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii, is doing during a moult. The species originally occurs in Mexico and the south of the United States and has been introduced in many other places; it has settled as an exotic species in Europe.

Its moult is a lengthy and complex process. The chitin, of which the carapace consists, is secreted by the epidermis and the carapace is attached to it. So, it is must be separated from the epidermis, which has to form a new one. The attachments of the muscles that are anchored to the armour have to be transferred.

As soon as the old carapace is shed, the new one is exposed. This leaves the crayfish unprotected and vulnerable, as the newly formed carapace is thin and fragile in the beginning. It has to thicken and harden before it can protect the animal. The entire process of moulting takes about a month: two weeks before the old armour is shed and two more weeks until the new armour has hardened.


The red swamp crayfish normally is courageous, but during the month of moulting, especially during the third week, it is not at ease, as experiments conducted by Bacqué-Cazenave show. He tested the animals every two or three days in a plus-maze with two illuminated and two dark arms. Crayfish that did not experience any stress spent 40 percent of their time in the illuminated part of the plus-maze. But when they were about to shed their carapace, they began to avoid the light a few days in advance, and the first week after moulting they stayed in the dark areas almost continuously. From earlier work, the researchers knew that the animals behave like this when they are anxious.

The aversion to light was indeed associated with moulting, according to tests in which the animals were given a hormone that initiates the moulting process, a so-called ecdysteroid. But when the animals were also given a tranquilizer, they did not avoid the illuminated areas. From this, the researchers conclude that the light aversion is an anxiety reaction.

Obviously, the period of moult is hard. But when it is over, the crayfish is safe in its armour for the next two to six months.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Andrew C (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

Bacqué-Cazenave, J., M. Berthomieu, D. Cattaert, P. Fossat & J.P. Delbecque, 2019. Do arthropods feel anxious during molts? Journal of Experimental Biology 222: jeb186999. Doi: 10.1242/jeb.186999

Romantic sea

Fairytale light shows of Cypridinid ostracods

ostracod produces light to escape from predator

With an amazing show of light pulses, male cypridinid ostracods try to attract a mate. Each species has its own specific show program, with either very short lasting flashes or bulbs that glow for several seconds. Nicholai Hensley and colleagues examined the chemistry behind.

It looks like a fairytale scene: dozens of blue lights dancing in the dark waters of the Caribbean Sea. The spectacle is visible to those who dive or snorkel at the beginning of the night. The light artists are ostracods of the Cypridinidae family, tiny crustaceans (less than two millimeters long) with a carapax consisting of two valves, like a clam shell.

They are also known as sea fireflies. Nicholai Hensley and colleagues study their behaviour and the chemistry behind their light.


Ostracods produce light by expelling mucus containing a reactant, vargulin, and the enzyme c-luciferase, which react with oxygen in seawater emitting blue light. The ostracods use their light mainly to avoid predation. If a fish picks up an ostracod, the prey will produce a cloud of blue mucus that is pumped into the water via the gills of the fish. It makes the fish visible to its own predators. Startled, it will spit out the bite.

In ostracods of the family Cypridinidae that live in the Caribbean Sea, males use the same light reaction in a much more subtle way with a completely different purpose: they place luminescent slimeballs in the water in order to seduce a female into a mating. This courtship behaviour produces the fairytale scenes.

Train of lights

The light artist best known is Photeros annecohenae, one of the most abundant species off the coast of Belize. In the first dark hour of the night, when the sun is down and the moon is not shining, groups of males display above seagrass beds. They have to perform well, because competition is high. While there are as many females as males, most are unavailable. This is because they incubate fertilized eggs in a brood pouch, and during this period, they will not mate.

American biologists examined male courtship behaviour in the lab, using infrared light. A displaying male will first swim in a looping pattern just above the tips of the seagrass blades and place about three bright flashes of light, probably to draw attention. Then, while spirally swimming upward, it places weaker light pulses at regular intervals. It swims at high speed, slowing down when it releases a luminescent slime ball.

By doing so, it creates a train of about twelve consecutively flashing lights that can be 60 centimetres long. When finished, it descends to start a new series. Often other males join and start displaying in synchrony.


To choose a mate, females assess the light pulses that the males produce. If a female is attracted to a particular male, she will swim to him without producing any light herself. Thanks to his regular flashing pattern, she manages to meet him just above his last light pulse. Mission accomplished.

Sometimes males try to obtain a mate without producing light themselves. Instead, they intercept a female that is on her way to a performing male.

Starting a show, following another male’s show or sneaking to get a female are different tactics to acquire a mate and a male can easily switch among them.

Species-specific shows

In the Caribbean Sea, many other species of Cypridinidae also occur, and about ten species commonly live at the same place. Because they all have their own characteristic light show, a female has no difficulty finding a conspecific partner. The shows vary in the trajectory a courting male swims, the number of light pulses, the brightness of the light, the interpulse distance and time interval and the time that a pulse remains visible.


Hensley investigated the cause of the variation in light pulse length. For although all species perform the same chemical reaction to make light pulses, the duration of the pulses varies greatly: some species, such as Photeros annecohenae, show flashes that last only a fraction of a second, others make light bulbs that continue to glow for 15 seconds.

The structure of the enzyme c-luciferase appears to vary between species, resulting in the light reaction to proceed faster in one species than in another. This determines how soon the light extinguishes. In addition, the reaction rate depends on the amount of vargulin compared to the amount of enzyme: the more vargulin, the longer it takes before it is all converted and the light disappears.

Courting males produce far less light than an animal that avoids predation. Romantic lights don’t have to be that big and bright.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Luminous cloud around a fish that intended to consume an ostracod. It will spit it out. © Trevor Rivers & Nicholai Hensley

Fifteen-scaled worm emits light to defend itself in another way

Hensley, N.M., E.A. Ellis, G.A. Gerrish, E. Torres, J.P. Frawley, T.H. Oakley & T.J. Rivers, 2019. Phenotypic evolution shaped by current enzyme function in the bioluminescent courtship signals of sea fireflies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 286: 20182621. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.2621
Rivers, T.J. & J.G. Morin, 2013. Female ostracods respond to and intercept artificial conspecific male luminescent courtship displays. Behavioral Ecology 24: 877–887. Doi: 10.1093/beheco/art022
Rivers, T.J. & J.G. Morin, 2012. The relative cost of using luminescence for sex and defense: light budgets in cypridinid ostracods. The Journal of Experimental Biology 215, 2860-2868. Doi: 10.1242/jeb.072017
Morin, J.G. & A.C. Cohen, 2010. It’s all about sex: bioluminescent courtship displays, morphological variation and sexual selection in two new genera of Caribbean ostracodes. Journal of Crustacean Biology 30: 56-67. Doi: 10.1651/09-3170.1
Rivers, T.J. & J.G. Morin, 2009. Plasticity of male mating behaviour in a marine bioluminescent ostracod in both time and space. Animal Behaviour 78: 723-734. Doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.06.020
Rivers, T.J. & J.G. Morin, 2008. Complex sexual courtship displays by luminescent male marine ostracods. The Journal of Experimental Biology 211: 2252-2262. Doi: 10.1242/jeb.011130