Leaf-cutting ants learn to avoid plants initially harvested if they prove to be harmful for their symbiotic fungus once incorporated into the nest. At this point, waste particles removed from the fungus garden are likely to contain cues originating from both the unsuitable plant and the damaged fungus. We investigated whether leaf-cutting ant foragers learn to avoid unsuitable plants solely through the colony waste. We fed subcolonies of Acromymex ambiguus privet leaves treated with a fungicide undetectable to the ants, then collected the produced waste, and placed it into the fungus chamber of naive subcolonies. In individual choice tests, naive foragers preferred privet leaves before waste was put into the fungus chamber, but avoided them afterwards. Evidence on the influence of olfactory cues from the waste on decision making by foragers was obtained by scenting and transferring waste particles from subcolonies that had been fed either fungicide-treated or untreated leaves. In choice experiments, foragers from subcolonies given scented waste originating from fungicide-treated leaves collected fewer sugared paper discs with that scent compared with foragers from subcolonies given scented waste from untreated leaves. The results indicate that foragers learn to avoid plants unsuitable for the fungus by associating plant odours and cues from the damaged fungus that are present in waste particles. It is argued that waste particles may contribute to spread information about noxious plants for the fungus within the colony.
The authors declare no competing or financial interests.
A.A. and F.R. conceived and designed the experiments. A.A. performed the experiments. A.A. performed data analysis. A.A. and F.R. drafted the manuscript.
This study was supported by a German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD) fellowship to A.A. (ref. no.: A/11/81698) and by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG, SFB 1047 TP C1).
- Received February 25, 2016.
- Accepted June 3, 2016.
- © 2016. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd