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Regulation of sexual development in the basal termite Cryptotermes secundus: mutilation, pheromonal manipulation or honest signal?

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Social insect colonies are not the harmonious entities they were once considered. Considerable conflicts exist between colony members, as has been shown for Hymenoptera. For termites, similar studies are lacking, but aggressive manipulations have been claimed to regulate sexual development, and even to account for the evolution of workers. This study on a basal termite, Cryptotermes secundus (Kalotermitidae), suggests that the importance of aggressive manipulations in termites has been overemphasized. Wing-bud mutilations, a means proposed to regulate the development of dispersing sexuals (alates), seem to be artifacts of handling conditions that cause disturbance. Aggressive behaviors never occurred unless colonies were disturbed. Theoretical considerations further showed that the potential for intense conflict among termite nestmates is low compared to hymenopteran societies. Strong conflicts are only expected to occur over the replacement of natal reproductives that died, while less intense conflicts should exist over the development into alates when food in the colony becomes limiting. Accordingly, intracolonial aggressive interactions over replacement are common, whereas nestmates seem to manipulate alate development via proctodeal feeding when food resources decline. However, the latter is rather an honest signal than a manipulation because only the most competent prospective dispersers can impede the development of nestmates.

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