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Correlated changes in breeding status and polyunsaturated cuticular hydrocarbons: the chemical basis of nestmate recognition in the burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides

Steiger, Sandra, Peschke, Klaus, Müller, Josef K.
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2008 v.62 no.7 pp. 1053-1060
Nicrophorus vespilloides, breeding, dead animals, females, insects, males, nestmate recognition, polyenes
Nestmate recognition in eusocial insects has received a lot of attention in the last decades. Recognition in subsocial species, in contrast, has been ignored almost completely and consequently, and little is known about proximate mechanisms of recognition in subsocial systems. We studied one subsocial species, the biparental brood caring burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides, an interesting model organism for studies of recognition because of its ability to discriminate between breeding partners and conspecific competitors. Recognition appears to be based on a chemical cue closely linked to the breeding status of individuals. Breeding and non-breeding beetles consistently differ in their relative proportions of polyunsaturated cuticular hydrocarbons. To investigate the function of these polyenes in the burying beetles' recognition system, we quantified their concentration on the cuticle during the early state of a breeding attempt and tested the response of breeding beetles in corresponding behavioural experiments. We observed a rapid increase in the proportion of polyunsaturated hydrocarbons of both males and females after they were provided with a carcass suitable for reproduction. Furthermore, we found that the relative amount of polyenes on an individual's surface was closely correlated with its chance of being accepted as breeding partner. Our results support the idea that polyunsaturated hydrocarbons are involved in breeding partner recognition in N. vespilloides, functioning as a signal that conveys information about the individual's breeding status. Breeding females have greater amount of polyenes than breeding males, and females ingest more carrion during the first days on the carcass, which supports our hypothesis that precursors for the respective polyenes are derived from ingested carrion.