Silverfish Use Chemical Mimicry to Obtain Free Food and Shelter Inside Army Ant Nests

Posted on December 1, 2011

Silverfish Army AntsNew research published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Ecology indicates that kleptoparasitic silverfish (Malayatelura ponerophila) cover themselves in the scent of Army ants (Leptogenys distinguenda) so they can live in their nests and eat their food. The silverfish manage to live with the ants without being killed by covering themselves in the ant's chemical scent.

The myrmecophilous (ant-loving) silverfish live their lives in and amongst army ants. To avoid being killed or rejected from the nest the silverfish need to trick the ants to believe that they are not invaders. The army ants have limited eyesight and rely primarily on chemical cues to recognize their colony members.

Christoph von Beeren and Volker Witte from the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, collected L. distinguenda ants and M. ponerophila silverfish from the tropical rainforests of Ulu Gombak, Malaysia. They found that, while the ants had 70 distinct hydrocarbon compounds on their cuticles, silverfish had none that are distinct for them. Instead, they carried the host colony scent, a phenomenon known as chemical mimicry.

The researchers discovered that the silverfish pilfered their host's scent, preferably by rubbing against defenseless 'callows' (immature ants). To avoid ant aggression silverfish have to continually replenish the scent. The researchers isolated some silverfish from the colony, which resulted in them losing their protective scent. When these ants were placed back in the colony they were chased, seized and bitten by worker ants.

Professor Witte says, "It seems that silverfish and ants are engaged in a co-evolutionary arms race. The ants have equipped themselves with a complicated scent recognition system to safeguard their nest from predators and parasites. While the ants were developing their nest protection strategy the silverfish evolved elaborate behavioral patterns, pilfering the hosts own recognition cues, to outwit the ant's chemical defenses. Consequently, the silverfish have access to food and shelter in the inner part of the ants nest without giving anything in return."

Other creatures, includng a species of beetle, spider and snail, also rely on chemical mimicry to live with army ants. Take a look:

Photo: Christoph von Beeren

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