The interdisciplinary study of chemical communication has developed into a cutting edge field of science that can address key questions on the organization of life at both the cellular and the organismal level. The study of communication in insect societies and their social parasites has played a pivotal role in these developments. However, suitable model lineages with a sufficient number of evolutionary transitions between normal social living and social parasitism are uncommon and even fewer have been thoroughly studied. This proposal intends to make such a key model system available for study in Europe. Megalomyrmex ants are chemical warriors, dispensing volatile venom alkaloids (VAs) by waving their stings (i.e. gaster flagging) as they enter another ant species’ nest or during competition; the former are derived social parasites (parasites of a society), while the latter are predatory species. Both use gaster flagging as a ‘warning shot’, announcing their presence to hosts or competitors. If the host does not allow infiltration, the invader will attack and kill. Infiltration can be accomplished as just described (i.e. chemical weaponry) or through the alteration of cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) (i.e. surface chemistry) using chemical mimicry and/or insignificance. I intend to decipher the chemical code of communication and manipulation of Megalomyrmex ants, linking behaviours observed to their chemical ecology. I will 1) test three infiltration strategy hypotheses using behavioural experimentation, 2) identify relevant chemical compounds, and 3) examine the results in an evolutionary context with phylogenetic hypothesis testing. Using a unique model system I pioneered, I will gain focused training in a leading laboratory in Europe which will enhance my job opportunities and future collaboration with Europe, transfer unique knowledge to the EU, and encourage a shift in the research on social parasitism towards a more comparative approach.
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