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When to care and when to kill: termites shape their collective response based on stage of infection

By Hannah E Davis, Stefania Meconcelli, Renate Radek, Dino P. McMahon

Posted 23 Mar 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/287441 (published DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-32721-7)

Termites defend their colonies from disease using an array of social behaviours, including allogrooming, cannibalism, and burial. We tested how groups of eastern subterranean termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) deploy these behaviours when presented with a nestmate at different stages of infection with the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae. As expected, the termites groomed pathogen-exposed individuals significantly more than mock-treated controls; however, grooming levels were significantly higher after spore germination than before. Cannibalism became prevalent only after exposed termites became visibly ill, and burial was rarely observed. These results demonstrate that termites employ different strategies depending on the stage of infection that they encounter. Grooming intensity is linked not only to pathogen presence, but also to germination status, and, given the temporal correlation between cannibalism and visible signs of illness, the host may play a role in triggering its own sacrifice.

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