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When a pathogen enters their colony, ants change their behavior to avoid the outbreak of disease. In this way, they protect the queen, brood and young workers from becoming ill. These results, from a study carried out in collaboration between the groups of Sylvia Cremer at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) and of Laurent Keller at the University of Lausanne, are published today in the journal Science.
High population density, as well as frequent and close contacts between individuals, contribute to a rapid spread of diseases. To protect their colonies, ants have developed disease defense mechanisms, including adaptations to their social organization. Ants do not interact randomly with other colony members, but are organized in sub-groups according to their age and the tasks they carry out. While young worker ants, so-called "nurses," look after the valuable brood at the center of the colony, older worker ants become foragers that collect food outside the nest. These forager ants are more exposed to pathogens.
Researchers - Barcode - System - Keller - Group
The researchers used a "barcode" system developed in the Keller group to follow the interactions between ants, especially to observe their behavior when disease spreads. In a first experiment, they placed digital markers on 2,266 garden ants. Infrared cameras took an image of the colonies every half second, and so the researchers could follow and measure the movement and position of each individual, and their social interactions. The researchers showed that the ants' subdivision into groups acts prophylactically and reduces the risk that disease spreads.
10 percent of the worker ants (all foragers) were then exposed to fungal spores which spread easily through contact. Comparing the ant colonies before and after pathogen exposure showed that the ants quickly detect the presence of the fungal spores and change their behavior to strengthen already existing defenses. "The ants change...
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