Although several behavioural studies demonstrate the ability of insects to localise the source of vibrations, it is still unclear how insects are able to perceive directional information from vibratory signals on solid substrates, because time-of-arrival and amplitude difference between receptory structures are thought to be too small to be processed by insect nervous systems. The termite Macrotermes natalensis communicates using vibrational drumming signals transmitted along subterranean galleries. When soldiers are attacked by predators, they tend to drum with their heads against the substrate and create a pulsed vibration. Workers respond by a fast retreat into the nest. Soldiers in the vicinity start to drum themselves, leading to an amplification and propagation of the signal. Here we show that M. natalensis makes use of a directional vibration sensing in the context of colony defence. In the field, soldiers are recruited towards the source of the signal. In arena experiments on natural nest material, soldiers are able to localise the source of vibration. Using two movable platforms allowing us to vibrate the legs of the left and right sides of the body with a time delay, we show that the difference in time-of-arrival is the directional cue used for orientation. Delays as short as 0.2 ms are sufficient to be detected. Soldiers show a significant positive tropotaxis to the platform stimulated earlier, demonstrating for the first time perception of time-of-arrival delays and vibrotropotaxis on solid substrates in insects.
This study is part of the PhD thesis of F.A.H. Both authors conceived and designed the study. F.A.H. carried out the experiments, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. W.H.K. supervised experiments and data analysis.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
This study was supported by grants of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
- © 2014. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd