12 thoughts on “Minute Myrmecology: Why do slave ants kill slavemakers?”

  1. James C. Trager

    TWo brief thoughts:
    — It is time once again to raise the prospect of using the terms cleptergy, cleptergic, instead of the analogically flawed and culturally insensitive terms slave-maker, slave-making.
    — In my seemingly life-long study of Polyergus, I’ve observed colonies to persist for years in the field. But when brought into captive conditions, the Formica host workers almost always rebel, fail to raise the parasite’s brood, and begin to harass and kill off the Polyergus workers. I’ve also noted that there seem to be large areas of the host species’ geographic distribution where there are no Polyergus. This leads me to think that those parts of the host population may be resistant to this particular sort of parasitism.

    1. I love the term “cleptergic” for the technical literature and would love to see it adopted. We still need a common name that lends itself to the public imagination, though. I find the slave-raiding analogy reasonably accurate, although I trust Joan’s experience in the pedagogical troubles it introduces. They could also be described as “kidnapper ants”, as that’s pretty much what brood theft is.

  2. Yes, James. We speculated on that in the natural history of Polyergus paper. The video doesn’t explain the mechanism behind the high frequency of killing in the lab. Probably something to do with the egg-laying rates of the host queens or the queens not quite “smelling” correct to the host species workers.

  3. I’m sure this question has been addressed, but how do you know that the cleptergic ants (is that the correct usage = ]?) are actually rebelling? My null before invoking natural selection would be that the slaves just don’t perfectly take to the pheromone profile of their host species, not because it benefits them, but simply because it’s a different smell than they’re expecting. Most of their nestmate recognition is acquired, sure, but some component of it could be innate, and the slave makers might not quite match this innate expectation. Perhaps it’s a statistical thing, where a slave doesn’t have an immediate negative reaction, but some brood just smell a bit off and they kill them. I suppose then the selection pressure would be on the slave-makers to smell right for the slaves, but maybe selection hasn’t gotten them to a perfect match yet, or there’s some constraint that prevents a perfect match.

    1. A good suggestion for a proximal mechanism, while Foitzik, et al.’s idea is more about the evolutionary benefit.
      Also, since you asked about use of terminology, in fact it is the host (kidnapped) species’ workers that are apparently “rebelling” against the cleptergic (kidnapper) ants.

      1. Although if what Buck proposes is true, then there is no extra benefit gained by populations with “rebelling” ants over and above the typical attacking of individuals that aren’t from the same species and/or colony that many (all?) ant species exhibit. The answer to the question Foitzik et al. propose – “Why do slave ants kill slavemakers?” – is not just about the evolutionary benefit, but also the mechanism specific to this species’ case.

  4. Please, please (!) stop creating additional replacement terms for the well-known ant slavery = dulosis! Those who study slave-making ants, or just wish to learn something on the phenomenon, already now have to search for “piracy” and “pirate ants”, and now for “cleptergy” (fortunately revealing just a very few papers). “Cleptoparasitism”, another old term, refers to ants which steasl food from ants of another species.

    Or would you like to see substitutes to other anthropomorphous terms in myrmecology, e. g. queen, king, worker, soldier? – Human queens are not egg-laying machines, the kings fortunately don’t die after the “first night”, human workers might be insulted, since they are not sterile neuters, soldiers usually don’t act as repletes or seed crushers, and so on.

    1. James C. Trager

      Prof. Buschinger — I have read and considered your comment above, and truly appreciate your input on the matter. While I note that we already have terms, in common use in myrmecology, that substitute for the soldier (major, supermajor) and sexual castes of ants (gyne, ergatoid, etc., male), it is certainly the case that “worker” stands strong (while ergate is quite rare).

      I take your point about “dulosis/dulotic” being much used terms, giving access to a large body of the literature on the subject, and on the relevant species. These two myrmecology words are not even recognizable as related to human slavery by the vast majority of non-Greeks. Indeed, they might not be recognized by most Greeks, because the words for slave and slavery in Greek are dulos/sklavia (or the more classical form, duleia), and the two word forms used in myrmecology do not exist in “real” Greek.

      Joan Herbers argued that her friends in the Classics field would recognize the root and might be offended, but that argument must certainly apply to exceedingly few people, and those, very bright people who ought to be able to understand the need for specific and consistent terminology in scholarly endeavors. In any case, realistically, who among Classics scholars ever even looks at this specialized subset of the myrmecological literature?!

      When I checked a few moments ago, “cleptergy” got no returns in a Google Scholar search, and it is still not too late to keep it that way. Though my revision of Polyergus has been submitted, it can still be modified. Of course, I like my new words, I am willing to forego proposing the terms, and could be convinced to argue for the continued use of dulosis/dulotic. I would still wish to avoid terms with the root “slave” in them, and would want to suggest others do likewise.

      Others — Your thoughts?

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