These Non-Combative Termites Live In A Peaceful Democracy

These Non-Combative Termites Live In A Peaceful Democracy

We all know how violent animals can become when they must compete for mates. Even humans are known for becoming aggressive when competing for mates. Social insects, on the other hand, typically have a queen doing all of the reproduction for the colony. This makes individual colony members well disposed toward other members, as they are not burdened with the responsibility of finding a mate. This lack of mate-competition allows insect colonies to operate efficiently within a caste system. When the queen and king die, however, anarchy ensues. Colonies will fall apart as colony members only defend themselves during violent competitions.  This in-colony fighting is just the norm after reproductive leaders die, except for one particular termite species, which is referred to as Cryptotermes secundus.

Secundus termites are known as “primitive termites.” This means that they do not build large mounds with intricate tunnel systems like many other termites do; instead these termites live within damp logs with colonies consisting of fifty to one hundred members. Like all other termites, the C. secundus has both soldier and worker colony members. The soldiers are sterile, and the workers do absolutely nothing. However, unlike the sterile soldiers, the workers have the ability to become breeders.

Researchers initially assumed, like all other termite species, that the C. secundus termite workers would struggle for survival following the death of the queen and king. It turned out that there was very little competition for the throne following the deaths of the queen and king. Researchers discovered that only twelve percent of the termite workers moulted into capable breeders. The few capable breeders that finished moulting would then engage in combat in order to with the throne, but they only injured their opponents. Afterwards, the injured opponents would be eaten by the rest of the termites, simply because all termites feed on injured or dead termites for nutritious sustenance.

Most importantly, the few capable breeders did not immediately fight others of their kind; instead the capable breeders spent a lot of time communicating with the rest of the colony via their antennae. The breeders would also feed the needy non-breeding colony members with their own feces as a way to demonstrate their concern for the health of the colony. These actions are similar to a democratic candidate canvassing the population for support. The researchers believe that these “canvassing” efforts were successful, as it helped influence the termite masses into choosing which breeders would become the reproductive members of a new colony.

Why do you think so few workers successfully moulted into breeders?


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