Within the fortress: A specialized parasite is not discriminated against in a social insect society

Emilia Solá Gracia, Charissa De Bekker, Ephraim M. Hanks, David P. Hughes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Social insect colonies function cohesively due, in part, to altruistic behaviors performed towards related individuals. These colonies can be affected by parasites in two distinct ways, either at the level of the individual or the entire colony. As such, colonies of social insects can experience conflict with infected individuals reducing the cohesiveness that typifies them. Parasites of social insects therefore offer us a framework to study conflicts within social insect colonies in addition to the traditionally viewed conflicts afforded by groups of low genetic relatedness due to multiple mating for example. In our study, we use the behavior manipulating fungal pathogen, Ophiocordyceps kimflemingiae (= unilateralis) and its host, Camponotus castaneus, to ask if colony members are able to detect infected individuals. Such detection would be optimal for the colony since infected workers die near foraging trails where the fungus develops its external structures and releases spores that infect other colony members. To determine if C. castaneus workers can detect these future threats, we used continuous-time point observations coupled with longer continuous observations to discern any discrimination towards infected individuals. After observing 1,240 hours of video footage we found that infected individuals are not removed from the colony and continuously received food during the course of fungal infection. We also calculated the distances between workers and the nest entrance in a total of 35,691 data points to find infected workers spent more time near the entrance of the nest. Taken together, these results suggest healthy individuals do not detect the parasite inside their nestmates. The colony’s inability to detect infected individuals allows O. kimflemingiae to develop within the colony, while receiving food and protection from natural enemies, which could damage or kill its ant host before the parasite has completed its development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0193536
JournalPloS one
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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