Visiting Researchers to Discuss Slavemaking Ants at Sleeping Bear Dunes

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Date: June 6, 2016

A new ant species was recently described, for the first time, by German researchers from specimens collected in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (National Lakeshore). This ant exhibits an unusual behavior: it enslaves other ants. 

Dr. Susanne Foitzik from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (Germany) will present a program discussing this interesting species and its slavemaking behaviors entitled “Coevolution Between Slavemaking Ants and their Hosts” on June 14 at 9:30 a.m. at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center Auditorium in Empire, Michigan. 

Parasitism is one of the most common lifestyles on earth, which is characterized by the exploitation of resources from another species, the host. Parasites often exert strong selection on their hosts leading to cycles of reciprocal adaptation termed coevolutionary “arms races.” Slavemaking ants are social parasites that exploit the social behaviors of other ant species. During recurrent slave raids, slavemaking ants steal worker brood (offspring) from host colonies, which upon emergence as adults work in the colony of their oppressors by taking over routine chores such as brood care and foraging.  

Dr Foitzik’s studies of the coevolutionary arms races between the slavemaking ant she helped describe (Temnothorax pilagens) and their hosts revealed behavioral and chemical adaptations. Host defense portfolios shift with social parasite pressure, which is in accordance with the degeneration of frontline defenses and the evolution of subsequent anti-parasite strategies. In about half of all raids, the host does appear to recognize the slavemaker and willingly follows it to their colony, allowing the slavemaker also to enslave adult host workers. However, at times the host recognizes and attacks the slavemaker, resulting in a “killing frenzy” of the slavemakers, which in rapid succession kill all host defenders, by stinging them to death. 

Dr. Foitzik is a Full Professor in Evolutionary Biology at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. She earned a degree in Biology in 1995 and a doctorate in Biology in 1998 from Julius Maximilians University in Würzburg, Germany. She earned a post-doctoral qualification (Habilitation) from the University of Regensburg, Germany in 2004. She has previously been a post-doctoral fellow at Colorado State University, Assistant Professor at the University of Regensburg, and Associate Professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. She has been an editor for the journal Biology Letters and is on the editorial board for Insectes Sociaux. She is an elected member for the German Research Foundation’s Zoology Review Panel for Behavioral and Sensory Biology. Her research interests and publications cover the topics of evolution, behavior and ecology of social insects, host-parasite coevolution, population genetics and genomics, animal personalities, chemical ecology, and sexual selection.

This talk is part of a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore speaker series called “Research Rendezvous.” To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NPS and highlight the value of national parks as our nation’s “living laboratories,” the National Lakeshore is hosting a series of public talks by park researchers in 2016. All Research Rendezvous presentations offered at the National Lakeshore are free. Upcoming “Research Rendezvous” presentations include:

“Ecological Impacts of Baby's Breath Invasion and Management in Sand Dunes” by Matthew Reid (University of Louisville) on Thursday, July 14 at 9:30 a.m.

“Volunteers for Science: A Panel Discussion with Citizen Scientists at Sleeping Bear Dunes” by park volunteers Marty Litherland, Carol Linteau, Mary Ellen Newport, John Ester, Char Ester, Kevin Kinnan, Kim Kinnan, and Bill Stott on Thursday, August 11 at 10:00 a.m.

“Otter Creek Brook Trout Restoration” by Brett Fessel (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians) on Thursday, September 8 at 9:30 a.m.

Talks are scheduled once or twice a month throughout 2016, with more being added frequently. Please check www.nps.gov/slbe/planyourvisit/events.htm for the current schedule of upcoming talks.

For more in-depth information about the National Lakeshore, please go to www.nps.gov/slbe. Also, check out their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/sbdnl and Twitter site www.twitter.com/sleepingbearnps.


Last updated: June 16, 2016

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