Chemical and behavioural strategies along the spectrum of host specificity in ant-associated silverfish

Thomas Parmentier, Miquel Gaju-Ricart, Tom Wenseleers, Rafael Molero-Baltanás

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Background: Host range is a fundamental trait to understand the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of symbionts. Increasing host specificity is expected to be accompanied with specialization in different symbiont traits. We tested this specificity-specialization association in a large group of 16 ant-associated silverfish species by linking their level of host specificity to their degree of behavioural integration into the colony and to their accuracy of chemically imitating the host’s recognition system, i.e. the cuticular hydrocarbon (CHC) profile. Results: As expected, facultative associates and host generalists (targeting multiple unrelated ants) tend to avoid the host, whereas host-specialists (typically restricted to Messor ants) were bolder, approached the host and allowed inspection. Generalists and host specialists regularly followed a host worker, unlike the other silverfish. Host aggression was extremely high toward non-ant-associated silverfish and modest to low in ant-associated groups. Surprisingly, the degree of chemical deception was not linked to host specificity as most silverfish, including facultative ant associates, imitated the host’s CHC profile. Messor specialists retained the same CHC profile as the host after moulting, in contrast to a host generalist, suggesting an active production of the cues (chemical mimicry). Host generalist and facultative associates flexibly copied the highly different CHC profiles of alternative host species, pointing at passive acquisition (chemical camouflage) of the host’s odour. Conclusions: Overall, we found that behaviour that seems to facilitate the integration in the host colony was more pronounced in host specialist silverfish. Chemical deception, however, was employed by all ant-associated species, irrespective of their degree of host specificity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number23
JournalBMC Zoology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 11 May 2022


  • Host specialization
  • Hydrocarbon - inquiline
  • Messor - myrmecophily
  • Specialization
  • Symbiont


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