Parental care behaviors shifted from parents to offspring in social insects

Thomas Chouvenc

This is a plain language summary of a Functional Ecology research article which can be found here.

Parental care behaviors represent an important selective force in animals as they lead to improved offspring survival. Parental care encompasses a spectrum of strategies from simple nest defense behaviors, or minimal resource provisioning, to elaborate brood care and expensive parental investment. In fact, the evolution of complex traits associated with parental care has been essential in facilitating the emergence of most animal societies. Remarkably, eusocial animals that form complex colonies, such as ants and termites, have pushed the function of parental care away from the parents toward their own offspring. This shift in brood care duty has allowed social insect queens to increase their egg-laying abilities, resulting in colonies with sometimes millions of individuals.

New Coptotermes termite queen and king providing parental care to their first cohort of offspring, but soon, the relationship will flip, as workers will take care of them and the rest of the growing colony (credit: Thomas Chouvenc)

This study shows that in newly established termite colonies, the young queen and king must first go through a subsocial phase where they must provide brood care to their first cohort of offspring. However, with the emergence of the first few functional workers (sterile helpers), the queen and king abandon all parental care duties, as these behaviors are then expressed by these first workers (= alloparental care). In termites, the new queen and king must rapidly reach alloparental care or simply run out of resources and die. This behavioral shift is irreversible as the queen and king then fully focus on reproduction, while relying on their workers to perform all other functions within the nest. In eusocial insects, colony foundation therefore remains a critical bottleneck, where the founding individuals must engage in a temporary (but obligatory) parental care phase that may ultimately reflect on the family unit conditions of their subsocial ancestors.


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