Camponotus floridanus ants incur a trade-off between phenotypic development and pathogen susceptibility from their mutualistic endosymbiont Blochmannia

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Various insects engage in microbial mutualisms in which the reciprocal benefits exceed the costs. Ants of the genus Camponotus benefit from nutrient supplementation by their mutualistic endosymbiotic bacteria, Blochmannia, but suffer a cost in tolerating and regulating the symbiont. This cost suggests that the ants face secondary consequences such as susceptibility to pathogenic infection and transmission. In order to elucidate the symbiont’s effects on development and disease defence, Blochmannia floridanus was reduced in colonies of Camponotus floridanus using antibiotics. Colonies with reduced symbiont levels exhibited workers of smaller body size, smaller colony size, and a lower major-to-minor worker caste ratio, indicating the symbiont’s crucial role in development. Moreover, these ants had decreased cuticular melanisation, yet higher resistance to the entomopathogen Metarhizium brunneum, suggesting that the symbiont reduces the ants’ ability to fight infection, despite the availability of melanin to aid in mounting an immune response. While the benefits of improved growth and development likely drive the mutualism, the symbiont imposes a critical trade-off. The ants’ increased susceptibility to infection exacerbates the danger of pathogen transmission, a significant risk given ants’ social lifestyle. Thus, the results warrant research into potential adaptations of the ants and pathogens that remedy and exploit the described disease vulnerability.

Original languageEnglish
Article number58
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)1-14
Publication statusPublished - 2018

    Research areas

  • Camponotus, Caste polymorphism, Disease susceptibility, Melanisation, Metarhizium, Primary endosymbiont

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