Adaptive social immunity in leaf-cutting ants

Tom N. Walker, William O. H. Hughes


Social insects have evolved a suite of sophisticated defences against parasites. In addition to the individual physiological immune response, social insects also express ‘social immunity’ consisting of group-level defences and behaviours that include allogrooming. Here we investigate whether the social immune response of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior reacts adaptively to the virulent fungal parasite, Metarhizium anisopliae. We ‘immunized’ mini-nests of the ants by exposing them twice to the parasite and then compared their social immune response with that of naive mini-nests that had not been experimentally exposed to the parasite. Ants allogroomed individuals exposed to the parasite, doing this both for those freshly treated with the parasite, which were infectious but not yet infected, and for those treated 2 days previously, which were already infected but no longer infectious. We found that ants exposed to the parasite received more allogrooming in immunized mini-nests than in naive mini-nests. This increased the survival of the freshly treated ants, but not those that were already infected. The results thus indicate that the social immune response of this leaf-cutting ant is adaptive, with the group exhibiting a greater and more effective response to a parasite that it has previously been exposed to.


    • Received January 3, 2009.
    • Accepted March 19, 2009.
  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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