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3D mapping of disease in ant societies reveals a strategy of a specialized parasite

By Raquel G. Loreto, Simon L Elliot, Mayara L. R. Freitas, Thairine M Pereira, David P. Hughes

Posted 27 Mar 2014
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/003574 (published DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103516)

Despite the widely held position that the social insects have evolved effective ways to limit infectious disease spread, many pathogens and parasites do attack insect societies. Maintaining a disease-free nest environment is an important evolutionary feature, but since workers have to leave the nest to forage they are routinely exposed to disease. Here we show that despite effective social immunity, in which workers act collectively to reduce disease inside the nest, 100% of studied ant colonies of Camponotus rufipes in a Brazilian Rainforest were infected by the specialized fungal parasite Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. Not only is disease present for all colonies but long-term dynamics over 20 months revealed disease is a permanent feature. Using 3D maps, we showed the parasite optimizes its transmission by controlling workersÂ’ behavior to die on the doorstep of the colony, where susceptible foragers are predictable in time and space. Therefore, despite social immunity, specialized diseases of ants have evolved effective strategies to exploit insect societies.

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