Talk to the dead: Chemical communications in corpse management in termites

  • Zhou, Xuguo (PI)
  • Haynes, Kenneth (CoI)

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Undertaking behavior is essential for social insects that live in large colonies with enclosed nests because it reduces exposure to pathogens. Dead nestmates are often recognized by a postmortem change in a chemical signature. Injuries can occur when co-occurring species, including congeneric competitors, share the same habitat. After death these intruders may be treated as dead nestmates (if the chemical signature of death is identical), continue to be treated as intruders (if they are not differentiated from living individuals), or in a novel manner related to a discrete risk from heterospecific individuals. Our preliminary research showed that Reticulitermes flavipes, one of the most destructive termites, showed distinctively different undertaking responses toward dead termite workers from various origins. The overall goal of this study is to gain a better understanding of the chemical cues eliciting undertaking process in termites. "Increased death cues" and "diminished vital sign" are the two working hypotheses underlying the corpse recognition. Although the nature and property are distinctively different, deathrecognition chemicals do share one commonality - they are death time-dependent, i.e., existing surface chemicals such as cuticle hydrocarbons can serve as "vital signs" which diminishes within the first hour of death, whereas, newly synthesized fatty acid based “death cues” needs time to produce and typically increase within the first 24 h of death. To test extant working hypotheses, we will examine the composition and temporal changes of the chemical signatures associated with dead termites. In addition, we also would like to learn more about the differential responses between termite workers and soldiers during the undertaking processes. We believe that such discrepancy is likely the result of division of lab in eusocial animals, and we will test this hypothesis by challenging R. flavipes colony with dead nestmates and non-nestmate corpses from a congeneric species R. virginicus.
Effective start/end date7/1/136/30/15


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