Evidence of cue synergism in termite corpse response behavior
Subterranean termites of the genus Reticulitermes are known to build walls and tubes and move considerable amounts of soil into wood but the causes of this behavior remain largely unexplored. In laboratory assays, we tested the hypothesis that Reticulitermes virginicus (Banks) would carry more sand into wooden blocks containing corpses compared to corpse-free controls. We further predicted that the corpses of predatory ants would elicit a stronger response than those of a benign beetle species or nestmates. As hypothesized, significantly more sand was carried into blocks containing corpses and this material was typically used to build partitions separating the dead from the rest of the colony. Contrary to expectations, however, this behavior did not vary among corpse types. We then tested the hypothesis that oleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid released during arthropod decay and used by ants and other arthropod taxa in corpse recognition, would induce a similar building response in R. virginicus. To additionally determine the role of foreign objects in giving rise to this behavior, the experiment was carried out with and without imitation corpses (i.e., small glass beads). As predicted, oleic acid induced building (a tenfold increase) but only when applied to beads, suggesting strong synergism between tactile and chemical cues. Oleic acid also significantly reduced the amount of wood consumed by R. virginicus and may possess useful repellent properties.