Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Divorce, Insect Style -- Termite 'Honeymoon' Is Time For Mate-Swapping, Cornell Biologist Reports

Date:
January 27, 1999
Source:
Cornell University
Summary:
Before settling down with their mates for a five-year life of raising a family, some termites suddenly have second thoughts: They use their brief "honeymoon" to find a better partner.

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Before settling down with their mates for a five-year life of raising a family, some termites suddenly have second thoughts: They use their brief "honeymoon" to find a better partner.

Reporting tomorrow (Jan. 22, 1999) in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Cornell University biologist Janet S. Shellman-Reeve describes the not-so-blissful scene on a rotting log when the seven-year itch occurs in the insect couple's first two hours.

-- Just an hour after landing on the log where she will spend most of her life with a newfound mate, a female termite might invite another male to the nest site to fight her mate for the right to father and raise her young.

-- A just-paired male can wander off in search of a better female.

-- Nest mates might fight each other when a potential suitor is near. Biting off the tip of a mate's antenna might squelch thoughts of separation, Shellman-Reeve hypothesizes.

Shellman-Reeve's study of the wood-dwelling, biparental termite Zootermopsis nevadensis marks the first scientific documentation of behavior called "mutual mate choice" among insect pairs that cooperatively provide long-term care for their young.

"Having second thoughts and choosing a better mate to share the heavy investment in parental care is a well-known strategy in vertebrates -- including humans -- but this is the first report of mutual mate choice in biparental insects," Shellman-Reeve says. "The process can be contentious and violent, but it makes sense. You want the best possible mate to help raise your offspring, and that's not always the first one you meet when you land on a log."

Her studies of Z. nevadensis, a species native to California woodlands, also show what is on the mind of mate-swapping termites: Females usually choose a male with a bigger head the second time around, while males go for females with bigger bodies and more lipid (fat) storage area. Big-headed males are better at ramming and biting their opponents while defending the nest, Shellman-Reeve explains. Big-bodied females are better suited, biologically speaking, for raising young.

Before her study of Z nevadensis honeymoons, Shellman-Reeve documented a pattern of termite homesteading that would make a mortgage banker proud. Within hours of flying to a likely log and making their ultimate mate choice, newly paired termites are building their future home. They erect concrete-like walls from their own fecal matter to keep interlopers away from the sections of the log they intend to mine. The nitrogen-rich cambium portion of trees is the most coveted by termites because other parts of wood are less nutritious for a growing family. The wood-mining colony, clustered around the original termite pair, can remain in place for years as offspring help with family duties, and one large log may host dozens of separate termite colonies. If the food runs out, termites sprout wings and look for another nitrogen-rich log to colonize.

Shellman-Reeve's latest study concentrated on the first 90 minutes of homesteading, when the nest site is just an unimproved, 2- or 3-centimeter spot on the log's surface. The Cornell biologist found both male and female termites willing to desert their home to search for someone better, but females are more likely to stay and invite a second male to the nest site as a way of securing a potentially better mate. Although male termites occasionally initiate what Shellman-Reeve terms the "stay-and-invite" strategy, they are more likely to follow a "leave-and-search" strategy for a better mate.

Whether at the nest or on the prowl, the dissatisfied mate rises up on its legs and begins a bouncy, stilt-walking motion while wiggling a section of its abdomen where a pheromone-producing gland is found. The airborne chemical sex-attractant in the pheromone and the characteristic posture are what advertises the termite's availability and interest in a better mate.

When termites of the same sex are battling for the affections of the opposite sex, the desired termite ceremoniously grooms each combatant in turn, as if to incite each to fight harder and prove its worth, Shellman-Reeve reports.

Almost comical is the reaction of one honeymooning termite when it detects a potential suitor for its nest mate. Instead of fighting the suitor, the termite assaults its mate. That's when intra-pair interaction gets nasty, Shellman-Reeve says.

But the Cornell biologist says she really had to laugh when she witnessed one example of off-again, on-again romance: "A male wandered off in search of a better mate but he had no luck. No one would have him. So he returned to his original mate. She assaulted him pretty severely for several minutes. Then she dragged him by the abdomen into a hole in their nest."

The study, "Courtship strategies and conflicts in a monogamous, biparental termite," was supported by Cornell, where Shellman-Reeve is a research associate in the Division of Neurobiology and Behavior. In a future study, Shellman-Reeve will use DNA fingerprinting techniques to determine whether her termites are truly mated for life -- or whether the urge to wander sometimes strikes again.

Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional information on this news release. Some might not be part of the Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their content or availability.

Cornell Division of Biological Sciences, Section of Neurobiology and Behaviorhttp://www.bio.cornell.edu/neurobio/sofneurobio.html

The Royal Societyhttp://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/

Cornell Department of entomologyhttp://www.cals.cornell.edu:80/cals/dept/entom/


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Cornell University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Cornell University. "Divorce, Insect Style -- Termite 'Honeymoon' Is Time For Mate-Swapping, Cornell Biologist Reports." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 January 1999. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/01/990127080646.htm>.
Cornell University. (1999, January 27). Divorce, Insect Style -- Termite 'Honeymoon' Is Time For Mate-Swapping, Cornell Biologist Reports. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 29, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/01/990127080646.htm
Cornell University. "Divorce, Insect Style -- Termite 'Honeymoon' Is Time For Mate-Swapping, Cornell Biologist Reports." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/01/990127080646.htm (accessed August 29, 2014).

Share This




More Plants & Animals News

Friday, August 29, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Killer Amoeba Found in Louisiana Water System

Killer Amoeba Found in Louisiana Water System

AP (Aug. 28, 2014) State health officials say testing has confirmed the presence of a killer amoeba in a water system serving three St. John the Baptist Parish towns. (Aug. 28) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Australian Sheep Gets Long Overdue Haircut

Raw: Australian Sheep Gets Long Overdue Haircut

AP (Aug. 28, 2014) Hoping to break the record for world's wooliest, Shaun the sheep came up 10 pounds shy with his fleece weighing over 50 pounds after being shorn for the first time in years. (Aug. 28) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Minds Blown: Scientists Develop Fish That Walk On Land

Minds Blown: Scientists Develop Fish That Walk On Land

Newsy (Aug. 28, 2014) Canadian scientists looking into the very first land animals took a fish out of water and forced it to walk. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Fake Dogs Scare Real Geese from Wis. Park

Fake Dogs Scare Real Geese from Wis. Park

AP (Aug. 28, 2014) Parks officials in Stevens Point, Wisconsin had a fowl problem. Canadian Geese were making a mess of a park, so officials enlisted cardboard versions of man's best friend. (Aug. 28) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins