Cross-dressing ants

Ant males are normally a very overlooked type of ant. They generally don’t look much like an ant at all (see for example Alex Wild’s ant male pictures), don’t go outside except for mating, and die immediately after mating, making them not very conspicuous at all.

Spot the male! Odontomachus workers and male. Picture by Alex Wild

Spot the male! Odontomachus workers and male. Picture by Alex Wild

However, very interesting things happen in the world of an ant male! For example, in the ant Cardiocondyla obscurior, colonies generally consist of many queens, and mating often happens inside the colony, leading to inbreeding. However, males will have to compete for the females.

In C. obscurior, two different kind of males exist. First there are the wingless males that are always fighting each other to the death with their sabre-shaped mandible in order to get access to queens. The second type are winged males that behave very peacefully and don’t have dangerous mandibles either. Funny thing is, these peaceful winged males are normally just as succesful in mating with queens as the wingless aggressive males.

So…what prevents the aggressive wingless males from killing the peaceful winged ones? It would surely be beneficial for them right? Well…yes…if only they could recognize their winged competition!

You see, ants normally recognize most things in their life by smell. The winged males actually managed to change their smell in order to smell like female queens! This results in the aggressive wingless males being unable to recognize them, and thus unable to kill them.

Unfortunately for the winged males, smelling like the queen has one slight disadvantage…wingless males keep trying to mate with them! However, this is a small prize to pay in order not to get killed by them instead.

Cremer S, Sledge MF, Heinze, J. (2002) Male ants disguised by the queen’s bouquet. Nature 419:897.

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