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Prophylaxis with resin in wood ants
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Animals may use plant compounds to defend themselves against parasites. Wood ants, Formica paralugubris, incorporate pieces of solidified conifer resin into their nests. This behaviour inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi in nest material and protects the ants against some detrimental microorganisms. Here, we studied the resin-collecting behaviour of ants under field and laboratory conditions. First, we focused on an important assumption of the self-medication hypothesis, which is that the animals deliberately choose the active plant material. In field cafeteria tests, the ants indeed showed a strong preference for resin over twigs and stones, which are building materials commonly encountered in their environment. We detected seasonal variation in the choice of ants: the preference for resin over twigs was more pronounced in spring than in summer, whereas in autumn the ants collected twigs and resin at equal rates. Second, we found almost similar seasonal patterns when comparing the collecting rates of pieces of wood that had been impregnated with turpentine (a distillate of oleoresin) and untreated pieces of wood, which reveals that the preference for resin is based on odour cues. Third, we tested whether the collection of resin is prophylactic or therapeutic. We found that the relative collection rate of resin versus stones did not depend on an experimental infection with the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae in laboratory colonies. Together, these results show that the ants deliberately choose the resin and suggest that resin collection is prophylactic rather than therapeutic.
antiparasite behaviour, Formica paralugubris, medication, olfaction, prophylaxis, resin, wood ant
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