A chemical signal of offspring quality affects maternal care in a social insect

Flore Mas, Kenneth F. Haynes, Mathias Kölliker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Begging signals of offspring are condition-dependent cues that are usually predicted to display information about the short-termneed (i.e. hunger) to which parents respond by allocating more food. However, recent models and experiments have revealed that parents, depending on the species and context, may respond to signals of quality (i.e. offspring reproductive value) rather than need. Despite the critical importance of this distinction for life history and conflict resolution theory, there is still limited knowledge of alternative functions of offspring signals. In this study, we investigated the communication between offspring and caring females of the common earwig, Forficula auricularia, hypothesizing that offspring chemical cues display information about nutritional condition to which females respond in terms of maternal food provisioning. Consistent with the prediction for a signal of quality we found that mothers exposed to chemical cues from well-fed nymphs foraged significantly more and allocated food to more nymphs compared with females exposed to solvent (control) or chemical cues from poorly fed nymphs. Chemical analysis revealed significant differences in the relative quantities of specific cuticular hydrocarbon compounds between treatments. To our knowledge, this study demonstrates for the first time that an offspring chemical signal reflects nutritional quality and influences maternal care.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2847-2853
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1668
StatePublished - Aug 7 2009


  • Begging signal
  • Chemical communication
  • Cuticular hydrocarbons
  • Forficula auricularia
  • Parent-offspring conflict
  • Signal of quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology (all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology (all)
  • Environmental Science (all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (all)


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