False alarm

Superb lyrebird male tries to prolong a female’s visit

a male superb lyrebirds show is also used to manipulate females

A male superb lyrebird can deceive a female into believing that danger is imminent, Anastasia Dalziell and colleagues think. This increases the chance that she will stay for a while and copulation ensues.

Superb lyrebirds are masters of imitating all possible sounds, and males make clever use of that talent. When a female pays a visit, a male imitates the sound of a flock of alarmed songbirds, creating the illusion that a predator is nearby, Anastasia Dalziell and colleagues write. Then she might stay a little longer than she really wanted.

The superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae), one of the largest passerine species, lives in the forests of South East Australia. Males and females do not form breeding pairs; each bird lives in its own territory. Females have one young per year, which they raise on their own.

Just watching

During the breeding season, males make themselves as attractive as possible. They construct mounds in their territory, where they sing their songs. Sometimes they sing a special song accompanied by a dance according to fixed rules, as Dalziell described earlier, throwing their decorative tail feathers over their body and head.

The purpose of a male’s show, of course, is to attract females and get them to copulate, because every mating can result in a young that he sires. Females visit several males before making their choice. As a result, a female may come to watch a displaying male, but refrain from mating with him in the end.

That is not what he intended.

Illusion of danger

When she is about to leave without copulating, he adds a new element to his song, which is remarkably similar to the sound of a flock of aroused songbirds.

Small songbirds get aroused when they detect a predator, such as a snake, large lizard, roosting owl, or perched hawk. They utter alarm calls to recruit others and harass the enemy together. The researchers show how accurately a male lyrebird mimics such mobbing flock of multiple simultaneously calling birds. Even the noise of beating wings is incorporated into his song. It is so accurate, that small songbirds are misled and approach to join.

The predators that arouse the small birds are dangerous for lyrebirds too. Therefore, the researchers hypothesize, the song creates the illusion that danger is imminent; the female is inclined to stay, and there is a chance that a copulation will happen.

Deception

A male superb lyrebird also utters this cacophony during mating. This job is not done in a few seconds, as it is other birds. Only after havng sat on her for more than half a minute, does he transfer his sperm. From the moment he mounts her until the end, he mimics the sound of a mobbing flock to prevent her from leaving too soon. During mating, he beats his wings in front of him, obscuring her view. She is unable then to assess whether it is safe to go, the authors suggest.

In conclusion, the superb lyrebird male uses his song not only to advertise his good health and condition, as is usual, but also to get a female to stay by giving a false signal of danger. That is deception.

Whether a female will stay longer because of the false alarm, the researchers don’t know. To find out, they would have to do experiments, which would be difficult for this species.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Courting male, covered with his tail. Kim Edol (via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Anastasia Dalziell about her research on YouTube

Sources:
Dalziell, A.H., A.C. Maisey, R.D. Magrath & J.A. Welbergen, 2021. Male lyrebirds create a complex acoustic illusion of a mobbing flock during courtship and copulation. Current Biology, online February 25. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.02.003
Dalziell, A.H., R. A. Peters, A. Cockburn, A.D. Dorland, A.C. Maisey & R.D. Magrath, 2013. Dance choreography is coordinated with song repertoire in a complex avian display. Current Biology 23, 17 juni online. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.05.018

Shrimp keepers

Longfin damselfish have their algal farms fertilized

Longfin damselfish grows algae with help of shrimp

Every intruder is chased away from the algal farm of the longfin damselfish, but a swarm of opossum shrimp is allowed stay and even receives protection. For good reason, Rohan Brooker and colleagues report.

The longfin damselfish (Stegastes diencaeus) is an aggressive, territorial fish that lives on coral reefs. It grows its own food by creating a farm of a few square meters where palatable algae grow. It tends its algae and defends its territory fiercely; all animals are chased off.

Or rather: almost all animals. Rohan Brooker and colleagues show that during the day, a swarm of opossum shrimp (Mysidium integrum) can be found in many algal farms. A farmer not only tolerates the shrimp’s presence, but it also protects them from their predators, although it takes some extra effort. Apparently, the tiny animals are worth it.

Flourishing farm

Why would an algae-farming longfin damselfish care about the shrimp, Brooker wondered. Although the fish supplements its algae diet with some small animals, it does not eat these shrimp. Perhaps, Brooker supposed, the shrimp are fertilizing the algae with their feces.

And that turned out to be the case. A farm with a swarm of shrimp does better than a farm without such swarm, thanks to nutrients excreted bythe shrimp. It hosts more large brown algae that form a structure on which turf-algae, which the damselfish prefers to eat, grow well. This translates into a better condition of the fish: damselfish with a shrimp swarm on their farm have a larger energy reserve than colleagues with a non-fertilized farm.

Brookers conducted his research on coral reefs off the coast of Belize, Central America.

Domesticated

Thus, the farming fish benefits for its flourishing crop, the shrimp for its guarded refuge. There are no shrimp swarms to be found outside farms during daytime. The shrimp leave the farm at night, when it is safe, to filter food from the water at the surface. Then they return to their permanent residence.

The fidelity to this place is so strong that young shrimp remain in their parents’ farm. Therefore, the authors consider the relationship between longfin damselfish and opossum shrimp as an early stage of domestication. The fish ‘keep’ the shrimp as livestock.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Longfin damselfish Stegastes diencaeus. Mark Rosenstein (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

The research explained on YouTube

Source:
Brooker, R.M., J.M. Casey, Z-L. Cowan, T.L. Sih, D.L. Dixson, A. Manica & W.E. Feeney, 2020. Domestication via the commensal pathway in a fish-invertebrate mutualism. Nature Communications 11: 6253. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-19958-5

Help is helpful in Seychelles warbler

Older mothers and their offspring benefit

Older Seychelles warbler mother and her young benefit from help

It requires great efforts of a female Seychelles warbler to raise a young. When she gets older, she is unable to sustain her work pace. The presence of helpers then compensates for the decline in care, as Martijn Hammers and colleagues show.

Adult Seychelles warblers often stay in the territory of their parents. Some of them, mostly females, make themselves useful by helping when the parents start brooding again. The helpers share in the reproductive success of their parents because new offspring is kin; they gain experience and may lay an egg in the nest themselves. But do the parents need their help?

When the female is older, they certainly do, according to long-term research by Martijn Hammers and colleagues on Cousin, an island that belongs to the Republic of Seychelles.

Long-term care

Seychelles warblers form breeding pairs. The female lays an egg once a year and both parents take care of the young. But the female does more. She incubates, and when the young bird has hatched, she brings it food at a higher rate than the male; the birds eat insects. The care continues for a long time, a young bird remains dependent on its parents for three to four months.

Young mothers are in good condition: although they work hard, they stay healthy. But as a female gets older – that is, from the age of 6 years on – her ability to provide care declines. She provisions her kid at a lower rate than when she was younger. Consequently, it has a smaller chance to survive the first, critical year. The elderly mother herself is ageing, and the chance that she will die increases sharply every year.

Unless she has female helpers.

Compensation

Female helpers make life a lot easier for an elderly brooding female. She will provision her young less frequently. Thanks to the help, it will still get enough and the chance that it will survive is high. The presence of helpers thus compensates for the lower work paceof an elderly mother. She also benefits herself: senescence sets in later and proceeds more slowly, increasing the chance that she survives and can breed once again.

For a young mother, it does not make much difference whether female helpers assist: her chance to survive is very high anyway, and that of her young is quite good. And the nice thing is that older females, which really benefit from help, are more likely to have helpers in their territory. For they have breeded more often, and therefore have a greater chance that at least one young stayed with her and will assist.

And what about dad?

We are doing a Seychelles warbler male wrong by saying that he does not incubate and provisions less intensively. He has a different task: to protect the nest against egg predators. Anyway, his contribution does not decline as he gets older, as in females. Perhaps it is easy to sustain his early pace, which is lower than that of a young female.

The chances for a young to survive, therefore, do not depend on its father’s age. Also, males age later than females. Consequently: whether a breeding pair really benefits from help of helpers does not depend on the father’s age, but only on the age of the mother.

Willy van Strien

Photo: ©Charlie Davies

Seychelles warblers help each other also in another way

Sources:
Hammers, H., S.A. Kingma, L.A. van Boheemen, A.M. Sparks, T. Burke, H.L. Dugdale, D.S. Richardson & J. Komdeur, 2021. Helpers compensate for age-related declines in parental care and offspring survival in a cooperatively breeding bird. Evolution Letters, online January 20. Doi: 10.1002/evl3.213
Hammers. M., S.A. Kingma, L.G. Spurgin, K. Bebbington, H.L. Dugdale, T. Burke, J. Komdeur & D.S. Richardson, 2019. Breeders that receive help age more slowly in a cooperatively breeding bird. Nature Communications 10: 1301. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-09229-3

Sound amplifier

Small tree cricket calls from a window

small tree cricket male calls from a window to amplify its sound

Those that are small must be smart. At least that applies to tree crickets. Males with a softer call than others have an effective strategy to amplify their sound, as Rittik Deb and colleagues show.

Small crickets face a problem. To attract females, cricket males raise their forewings and rub them together. The forewings are leathery and provided with a comb. The rubbing causes them to vibrate, and as vibrating membranes, they produce sound waves: the familiar chirping. But at the wing edges, the sound waves are attenuated, softening the sound. Especially for small species, with small wings, that effect is significant. For instance for tree crickets (Oecanthus species), with wings only about one centimeter long.

Small and soft calling males of tree cricket Oecanthus henryi, which lives in India, have a unique method to amplify their sound, Rittik Deb and colleagues report: they turn a leaf into a sound amplifier.

Pear-shaped hole

The chirping noise is extinguished at the wing edges because waves at the front and back side are in opposite phase. That is because when air is compressed by the vibrating wings at the front side (creating a wave peak), it expands at the back (wave trough) and vice versa. At the edges, waves cancel each other out because of these opposite phase, resulting in a softer sound.

Tree cricket males can prevent this by separating the waves from the front and back side with a baffle. They do this by cutting a small window in a leaf and taking place in it to sing, with the head directed to one side, the abdomen to the other, and the raised forewings perpendicular to the body, in the plane of the leaf.

Previously, the researchers had shown that tree crickets can create a nearly perfect window in one go. They make such hole only in larger leaves of their host plant, Hyptis suavevolens. That makes sense, because large leaves produce a clear effect. The best place for the hole is in the center, but there the midrib runs. The leaf would wither when the tree crickets pierced it. So, they cut the hole close to the center, next to the midrib. And they make the hole pear-shaped, fitting the male with raised forewings, with the edges of wings and window close to each other.

The baffle is a good sound amplifier. The call is louder than it would be without it. For females, this is more attractive. In addition, the sound travels further, reaching more females.

More sperm

Yet not all tree cricket males take the effort to make such sound amplifier. Now, the researchers show that mainly the smaller ones with a soft sound do it, and explain why they do it.

By singing with a self-made baffle, small and soft calling males increase females’ attendance, as expected. With this sound amplifier, they may attract about six times as many females per night as without baffling, the researchers calculated. That is a considerable gain. Large and loud calling males can attract more females with a baffle too. But it doesn’t help them much, because even without sound amplification, they get as many mates as they can handle. They do not need to attract more females.

Large and loud males therefore call in the standard way: from the edge of a leaf. But other males make a window to amplify the sound of their call. This makes them appear larger than they really are, and females are misled. They mate longer with louder calling males – either large males or small, baffling ones – so that these males can transfer more sperm. By making a baffle, small and soft calling males increase their reproductive success, which would otherwise be quite low.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Oecanthus henryi. ©Rittik Deb

Sources:
Deb, R., S. Modak & R. Balakrishnan, 2020. Baffling: a condition-dependent alternative mate attraction strategy using self-made tools in tree crickets. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 287: 20202229. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2229
Mhatre, N., R. Malkin, R. Deb, R. Balakrishnan & D. Robert, 2017. Tree crickets optimize the acoustics of baffles to exaggerate their mate-attraction signal. eLife 6: e32763. Doi: 10.7554/eLife.32763

Hornets deterred

Asian honey bee discourages its enemy

hornets are predators of Asian honey bee

Hornets are dangerous predators of the Asian honey bee. The bees try to avert danger by making approaching hornets know they have been seen, as Shihao Dong and colleagues describe. Or by covering the nest entrance with animal faeces, as Heather Mattila and colleagues show.

The Asian honey bee, Apis cerana, is threatened by dangerous hornets, more than the European honey bee. Such large wasp with strong jaws and venomous sting can hover in front of a colony of honeybees, plucking foraging bee workers from the air to consume them.

And worse: hornets can operate in groups, enter a bees’ nest, kill any adult bees that do not flee and take possession of the larvae and pupae, which they bring to their own nest to feed their offspring. Like honeybees, hornets live in social groups with a queen laying eggs and workers taking care of her offspring.

So, a visit from hornets is something that should definitely not occur.

Asian honey bees have developed different defence mechanisms. The bees inform an approaching hornet that they are ready to defend themselves, as Shihao Dong and colleagues report. So, a surprise attack is not possible. Or they smear animal faeces around the entrance of their nest to frighten off the enemy, Heather Mattila and colleagues show.

I see you

Hornets are especially dangerous in autumn, when the brood in their nests needs a lot of animal food.

A hornet that detects a colony of Asian honey bees cannot enter it immediately. The nest entrance is too small and it is monitored by bee guards that alert their nest mates if necessary. But the hornet can apply a chemical scent mark to the nest to recruit dozens of colleagues, and collectively they can enlarge the nest opening by chewing and invade. The bees have to prevent that from happening. They have to deter the first hornet, the scout, and avert a group attack.

That is possible by showing an approaching hornet that it has been seen. Asian honey bees in China display a so-called I-see-you signal: when an Asian hornet, Vespa velutina, approaches the nest, bee guards will shake their abdomen. Guards copy this movement from each other, even without seeing the hornet with their own eyes, and the behaviour attracts more guards. The closer the hornet approaches or the faster it flies, the faster the swinging motion becomes, up to more than 30 sweeps per minute.

Asian honey bees kill hornet in a heat ballIt repels the hornet. Because if the bees spot it in time, they are able to attack and kill it, as was already known. They enclose it in a dense ball of tens or hundreds of bees. The bees vibrate their flight muscles, so that the temperature in the ball rises to about 47°C, a temperature that the bees just endure, and the carbon dioxide content rises. The hornet succumbs.

But it is better if it doesn’t get that far, because killing a hornet in such heat ball takes a lot of time and energy. Not all bees survive the heat balling. Hence, the bees first try to discourage the enemy.

Sullied

The Asian hornet is a small species, and not the most dangerous one for the Asian honey bee. It does not perform mass-attacks and does not enter a bees’ nest. More threatening are the Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia, and the related Vespa soror.

To discourage the larger hornets, Asian honey bees take more pains than for the smaller species, as it seems. In Vietnam, they manage to keep the large hornet Vespa soror away from their nest by applying mounded spots of animal poo around the entrance. When workers notice a hornet or its chemical scent mark, they look for a pile of animal dung, pick up a clump of it with their mouth parts, carry it to the nest and stick it close to the entrance. Upon detecting the smaller Asian hornet, Vespa velutina, near their nest, they don’t do this.

A sullied entrance acts as a deterrent: hornets leave faster and are less likely to land on the nest and enlarge the entrance opening. The researchers are not yet sure why animal poo has this repellent effect.

Odour mark masked

In northern Japan, honeybees smear chewed plant material around the entrance of their nest after spotting an Asian giant hornet, Ayumi Fujiwara’s research showed. It could well be that the smell of the stuff masks the chemical odour mark of the hornet. And maybe foetid poop does as well.

Willy van Strien

Photos:
Large: Japanese yellow hornet, Vespa simillima xanthoptera, at the nest of Asian honey bees, Apis cerana. Takahashi (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.1 JP)
Small: Asian honey bees forming a heat ball around two hornets. Takahashi (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.1 JP)

Sources:
Dong, S., K. Tan & J.C. Nieh, 2020. Visual contagion in prey defence signals can enhance honest defence. Journal of Animal Ecology, online November 20. Doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13390
Mattila, H.R., G.W. Otis, L.T.P. Nguyen, H.D. Pham, O.M. Knight & N.T. Phan, 2020. Honey bees (Apis cerana) use animal feces as a tool to defend colonies against group attack by giant hornets (Vespa soror). PLoS ONE 15(12): e0242668. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0242668
Fujiwara, A., M. Sasaki & I. Washitani, 2016. A scientific note on hive entrance smearing in Japanese Apis cerana induced by pre-mass attack scouting by the Asian giant hornet Vespa mandarinia. Apidologie 47: 789-791. Doi: 10.1007/s13592-016-0432-z
Tan, K., Z. Wang, H. Li, S. Yang, Z. Hu, G. Kastberger & B.P. Oldroyd, 2012. An ‘I see you’ prey-predator signal between the Asian honeybee, Apis cerana, and the hornet, Vespa velutina. Animal Behaviour 83: 879-882. Doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.12.031

Wandering dragonfly

Globe skimmer travels thousands of kilometres

globe skimmers travel large distances

The dragonfly Pantala flavescens, the globe skimmer, was already known to be a migrating species that travels enormous distances. By conducting chemical analyses of the wings, Keith Hobson and colleagues once again confirm this picture.

It is well known that some butterflies migrate between widely separated regions where they spend summer and winter: monarch butterfly and painted lady. It is less known that two species of dragonflies exist that don’t refrain from undertaking a long journey either: the spot-winged glider, Pantala hymenaea, from North, Central and South America, and above all the globe skimmer dragonfly Pantala flavescens, which has an almost worldwide distribution. These species belong to the family Libelludae.

globe skimmer resting during migrationEarlier research by Daniel Troast had shown that no genetic differences exist between globe skimmer populations from North America (US), South America (Guyana) and Asia (India, Korea and Japan). This means that these populations are in contact with each other. In other words: the insects must be able to travel great distances.

Unique achievement

And they do, according to chemical analyses of the wings by Keith Dobson and colleagues. These analyses focus on the ratio of hydrogen isotopes, which corresponds to that of the water in which the dragonflies lived during their larval stage. The hydrogen isotopic composition of water bodies depends on precipitation and temperature.

Earlier, Hobson had elucidated how globe skimmers migrate annually from Northern India, or perhaps even across the Himalayas, to East Africa and back. The total distance per cycle is at least 18,000 kilometres and it takes several generations to complete it. An individual dragonfly travels up to 6,000 kilometres during its lifetime, and many individuals fly 3,500 kilometres across the ocean. That is a unique achievement in the insect world.

During flight, migrating dragonflies catch small prey from the sky. They fly at high altitudes, probably using winds that are associated with the so-called Intertropical Convergence Zone. The zone changes position during the year, causing wind and unstable weather.

Summer migrants in Japan

Now, Hobson took a look at globe skimmers that occur in Japan in summer. They can be found from April to November and occur in large numbers from June to September. Most of Japan is too cold for them in winter, so they don’t hibernate there. When they appear in spring, they come from elsewhere, thousands of kilometres away.

As the wing analyses revealed, the first specimens, in April, probably come from the southwest: South China and Southeast Asia. Later, in the summer, dragonflies arrive from the west: North China and Mongolia, or from South China, North India and the Tibetan Plateau. Might the latter trip be a continuation of the journey that the animals take from East Africa? Unfortunately, the researchers don’t mention it.

Still later, in October and November, dragonflies keep coming from the west; Hobson also found insects from Korea and the east of Russia. Only a few animals had grown up in Japan. The migration appears to be related to the wind direction, which is predominantly westerly in summer.

Rapid development

The wandering existence of the globe skimmer is partly possible because the larvae develop rapidly. While that development takes ten months in other species, the globe skimmer needs about six weeks. And then migration can continue.

This short development time also means that globe skimmer dragonflies are not dependent on areas with permanent water bodies for reproduction. Females can also use temporary water bodies from rainy periods to lay eggs in.

Willy van Strien

Photos
Large: The globe skimmer dragonfly, Pantala flavescens. Rison Thumboor (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)
Small: Resting globe skimmers. Shyamal (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Another migrating insect: painted lady

Sources:
Hobson, K.A., H. Jinguji, Y. Ichikawa, J.W. Kusack & R.C. Anderson, 2020. Long-distance migration of the globe skimmer dragonfly to Japan revealed using stable hydrogen (δ 2H) isotopes. Environmental Entomology, online Nov. 21. Doi: 10.1093/ee/nvaa147
Troast, D., F. Suhling, H. Jinguji, G. Sahlén & J. War, 2016. A global population genetic study of Pantala flavescens. PLoS ONE 11: e0148949. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0148949
Hobson, K.A., R.C. Anderson, D.X. Soto & L.I. Wassenaar, 2012. Isotopic evidence that dragonflies (Pantala flavescens) migrating through the Maldives come from the northern Indian subcontinent. PLoS ONE 7: e52594. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0052594

First amiable

Older painted turtle male switches to violent behaviour

painted turtle male is amiable until he gets older

During their life, painted turtle males change their behaviour towards females. They switch from courtship to coercion, Patrick Moldowan and colleagues witnessed.

Mating is often a pleasant affair in the painted turtle, Chrysemys picta. A male courts a female and at one point he strokes her head with his fore claws, which are elongated in males. If she is receptive, things go on. This state of affairs was known.

But males are not always that friendly, according to Patrick Moldowan and colleagues, who study the animals in wetlands in Canada. They had noticed that during the breeding season, in late summer, many females have bite wounds on head and neck. Apparently, males can become outrageous and bite, they write. They wanted to know more.

Claws or teeth

As it turned out, the tactic with which a painted turtle male approaches a female depends on his size, and thus on his age. The researchers discovered this by temporarily enclosing animals, after measuring their size, in a cage in their living environment. They videotaped their behaviour and watched the footage afterwards. Young adult men are gallant lovers, they saw. Their fore claws are very elongated. But as males get older and grow, their fore claws don’t. As a result, they are getting smaller in proportion.

At the same time, males develop ‘weapons’. Two tooth-like cusps (tomiodonts) appear at the front of the upper jaw. In males, those teeth are much more prominent than in females, and when a male grows, his teeth get proportionally larger. In addition, projections develop on the anterior edge of his upper shell. Males use these weapons to force women into mating; they bite and they clatter with their shells.

So, males switch from a friendly to a violent attitude towards females during their lifetime; the relative size of claws, tomiodonts and carapace projections matches their behaviour.

Storage

A successful mating can result in many offspring; also in the long term, because a female stores the sperm for a long time. It therefore makes sense that a painted turtle male strives to get access to a female. But why do only small males this in a kind way? Perhaps because females, that are larger on average, would be able defend themselves well against unfriendly small males. It’s then better to be nice. But as males get bigger and stronger, coercion appears to be more successful.

Unfortunately, the researchers could not see whether large males were really able to enforce mating, because the animals didn’t go so far during the experiments.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Rickard Holgersson (via Flickr, Creative Commons, Public Domain)

Sources:
Moldowan, P.D., R.J. Brooks & J.D. Litzgus, 2020. Sex, shells, and weaponry: coercive reproductive tactics in the painted turtle, Chrysemys picta. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 74: 142. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-020-02926-w
Moldowan, P.D., R.J. Brooks & J.D. Litzgus, 2020. Demographics of injuries indicate sexual coercion in a population of Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta). Canadian Journal of Zoolology 98: 269-278 Doi: 10.1139/cjz-2019-0238
Hawkshaw, D.M., P.D. Moldowan, J.D. Litzgus, R.J. Brooks & N Rollinson, 2019. Discovery and description of a novel sexual weapon in the world’s most widely-studied freshwater turtle. Evolutionary Ecology 33: 889-900. Doi: 10.1007/s10682-019-10014-3

Acid gulp

Ant swallows its own formic acid to stay healthy

Tnaks to formic acid, Formicinae ants are healthy

Formic acid appears to be a great help for ants to prevent infection from contaminated food, Simon Tragust and colleagues discovered. A gulp after each consumption increases their survival chance.

People like sweet desserts, but for ants of the subfamily Formicinae it is different. They take a gulp of formic acid after eating or drinking, Simon Tragust and colleagues witnessed.

This is remarkable, because formic acid is an aggressive substance. Formicinae ants produce it in a venom gland that has an opening at the tip of the abdomen. They were known to spray it at predators, such as birds, spiders, and insects, to defend themselves, and this is understandable. But swallowing?

Disinfect

Tragust and colleagues had shown previously that Formicinae ants use their acid not only against predators, but also against pathogens. Workers apply it in combination with resin to keep an entomopathogenic fungus (Metarhizium brunneum) out of their nest.

Also, they use formic acid to keep the brood clean. If they detect pupae covered with spores of the pathogenic fungus, they clean them and cover them with formic acid, which they had taken up from the abdominal gland opening into the mouth.

If fungal spores have already germinated on a pupa and the fungus has penetrated the cuticle, workers unpack the infected pupa from its cocoon, bite holes in the skin and inject formic acid. In this way, they prevent the fungus from growing and forming spores that will contaminate the rest of the colony. The pupa does not survive the treatment, but it would have been killed by the fungus anyway.

Crop acidity

Now, a new application of formic acid comes to light: Formicinae ants swallow their own formic acid after eating or drinking something. Tragust deduces this from tests in the lab with Florida carpenter ant, Camponotus floridanus. He offered ants honey water or plain water and saw them lick their abdominal tip afterwards. Apparently, they then took up acid into the mouth and swallowed it, as Tragust showed that the contents of their crop, just before the stomach, became very acidic.

Perhaps, the idea was, workers take formic acid to kill bacteria that may be present on food. And that was the case, as became clear from tests in which workers were given food that was contaminated with a pathogenic bacterium species (Serratia marcescens). In ants that then took a gulp of formic acid, bacteria did not survive the crop environment and the rest of the intestinal system remained clean. Ants that were prevented from taking in acid, were at greater risk of a deadly infection.

Only bacteria that thrive in acidic environments survive the acidic crop, and such bacteria populate the ants’ intestines. But these are beneficial bacteria that help digest food. The acid appears to be an excellent remedy against pathogenic microbes.

Fortunately, we don’t have to take an extremely sour dessert like Formicinae ants, because our stomach keeps itself acidic.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Carpenter ant, Camponotus cf. nicobarensis. ©Simon Tragust

Ants also use formic acid to keep fungus out of nest

Sources:
Tragust, S., C. Herrmann, J. Häfner, R. Braasch, C. Tilgen, M. Hoock, M.A. Milidakis, R. Gross & H. Feldhaar, 2020. Formicine ants swallow their highly acidic poison for gut microbial selection and control. eLife 9: e60287. Doi: 10.7554/eLife.60287
Pull, C.D., L.V. Ugelvig, F. Wiesenhofer, A.V. Grasse, S. Tragust, T. Schmitt, M.J.F. Brown & S. Cremer, 2018. Destructive disinfection of infected brood prevents systemic disease spread in ant colonies. eLife 7: e32073. Doi: 10.7554/eLife.32073
Tragust, S., B. Mitteregger, V. Barone, M. Konrad, L.V. Ugelvig & S. Cremer, 2013. Ants disinfect fungus-exposed brood by oral uptake and spread of their poison. Current Biology 23: 76-82. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.034

Is it an ant?

Jumping spider exchanges jumping proficiency for safety

Myrmarachne jumping spiders resemble ants

To escape from predators, some jumping spider species mimic the appearance of an ant. A smart move, but it may constrain jumping abilities, Yoshiaki Hashimoto and colleagues supposed.

Everyone can tell the difference between a spider and an ant. A spider’s body has two parts: a cephalothorax and an abdomen, which is usually round. It has eight legs. An ant, on the other hand, is slender. Head and thorax are separated, while the abdomen is connected to the thorax by a narrow pedicel. It has six legs and two antennae.

But you can be mistaken, because some jumping spiders, Myrmarachne species, convincingly mimic the appearance of a spider. This is at the expense of their jumping skills, Yoshiaki Hashimoto and colleagues show.

It will certainly be beneficial for these little spiders to look like an ant. Predators refrain from taking an ant, because this prey may bite or sting, spray formic acid or have an army of colleagues nearby. They also avoid spiders that look like an ant.

Complete picture

The jumping spiders imitate ants in several ways. Females of Myrmarachne plataleoides, for example, resemble the green weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) very closely. They are the same size and colour. The shape is also similar, thanks to a constriction behind the head and an elongated pedicel between a slender thorax and a thin, long abdomen with an anterior constriction. Two black spots on the side of the head imitate the large eyes of ants; the eight real eyes at the front are hardly visible. And to complete the picture, these spiders often slightly lift the first pair of legs; it seems as if they have six legs and a two antennae, just like ants.

But Hashimoto wondered: are jumping spiders that mimic ants really jumping spiders? In other words, isn’t the disguise at the expense of their jumping abilities?

Jumping spiders don’t construct a web, but they hunt on the ground and jump to their prey. To jump, they stretch their legs. This not done with muscle power, but with power generated by liquid pressure: the spiders pump hemolymph, their variant of blood, from the abdomen into the cephalothorax, to which the legs are attached, and by compressing the cephalothorax, they raise the pressure, extending the legs. For ant mimics this is difficult, because they have to force the liquid through the thin stalk between the abdomen and the cephalothorax. And as the cephalothorax is thin, they cannot create high pressure. Hence the question.

Giant leap

The researchers took seven Myrmarachne species from tropical Southeast Asia and compared their shape with that of other jumping spider species. Myrmarachne-spiders were indeed more elongated and slenderer. Some ant mimics, including Myrmarachne plataleoides, were very slender because they mimic a very thin ant.

In a lab test, non-mimetic jumping spiders jumped a distance nearly three times their body length. The ant mimics didn’t perform as well. The very slender types only jumped two-thirds of their body length, the thicker ones went a bit further. So, ant-mimicking jumping spiders have indeed sacrificed their jumping ability in exchange for safety. That makes hunting more difficult, because they cannot jump on prey from a distance. Tests show that their prey capture success rate is lower than that of other jumping spiders.

There is some evidence, the researchers write, that the most slender ant mimics switched to a mainly plant-based diet. That would be a giant leap – albeit figuratively.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Jumping spider Myrmarachne plataleoides, female. Renjusplace (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Source:
Hashimoto, Y., T. Endo, T.Yamasaki, F.Hyodo & T. Itioka, 2020. Constraints on the jumping and prey‑capture abilities of ant‑mimicking spiders (Salticidae, Salticinae, Myrmarachne). Scientific Reports 10: 18279. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-75010-y

Successful clutch? Leave!

Plovers abandon successful family to re-nest elsewhere

Plovers, including snowy plover, leave their family when successful

A successful marriage triggers divorce, at least in plovers. That is because a parent that deserts may achieve higher reproductive success, Naerhulan Halimubieke and colleagues noted.

A bird male and female that successfully raised young had better stick together, you might think, as they have proven to be a good team. And after a disappointing breeding result, it is best for them to split up and find another mate, with which things may go better. Such is the behaviour in most species of birds in which pairs form to breed.

But in plovers, it is the other way round, Naerhulan Halimubieke and colleagues write. A pair of plover parents often will divorce after successfully producing chicks. And after nest failure, male and female stay together to try again. For these birds, this is the best strategy.

New brood

The researchers had previously found this pattern – divorce if successful, stick together if failing – in the snowy plover Charadrius nivosus, a ground-nesting bird which lives on sandy beaches. A clutch consists of three eggs in a shallow scrape, which are incubated by both parents. When the chicks hatch, they leave the nest immediately. They find their own food and only need warmth and protection from their parents. A single parent can easily provide this. It is therefore not necessary for both parents to stay with the young until they are completely independent, after about a month.

That is why one of the parents may leave its successful family to find a new mate and initiate another brood. Deserting parents gain time, taking advantage of the breeding season as much as possible; their behaviour results in more offspring on average within a breeding season.

Females desert more often than males, probably because there is a small surplus of adult males, so that on average, females meet a new mate sooner.

A completely different situation arises when a snowy plover brood fails, which in most cases is caused by a predator that detected the nest. The best strategy for the parents in that case is to stay together and start a new nest immediately.

Other plovers

Now, this appears to apply to other species of plovers as well, all of them shorebirds. Halimubieke and colleagues examined eight species. Populations with greater breeding success exhibit a higher rate of divorce within a breeding season than populations with less success, they noted. And within populations, couples with a successful clutch split up more often than couples that see their clutch fail.

Also over years, these birds are not necessarily faithful to their mates. When a new breeding season is coming, they start to nest as soon as possible without worrying too much about mate selection. Having as much offspring as possible – that’s the most important thing.

Willy van Strien

Photo: snowy plover, Charadrius nivosus. Lisa Mcgloin (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 3.0)

Sources:
Halimubieke, N., K. Kupán, J.O. Valdebenito, V. Kubelka, M.C. Carmona‑Isunza, D. Burgas, D. Catlin, J.J.H. St Clair, J. Cohen, J. Figuerola, M. Yasué, M. Johnson, M. Mencarelli, M. Cruz‑López, M. Stantial, M.A. Weston, P. Lloyd, P. Que, T. Montalvo, U. Bansal, G.C. McDonald, Y. Liu, A. Kosztolányi & T. Székely, 2020. Successful breeding predicts divorce in plovers. Scientific Reports 10: 15576. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-72521-6
Halimubieke, N., J.O. Valdebenito, P. Harding, M. Cruz‐López, M.A. Serrano‐Meneses, R. James, K. Kupán & T. Székely, 2019. Mate fidelity in a polygamous shorebird, the snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus). Ecology and Evolution. 9: 10734-10745. Doi: 10.1002/ece3.5591