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Termites and mites – adaptive behavioural responses to infestation?

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Rapid adaptation to their hosts' defence systems usually allows parasites to keep the upper hand in the co-evolutionary arms race between hosts and parasites. However, although morphological and physiological adaptations are generally far slower in hosts than in their parasites, the former can rapidly respond to a parasite challenge by dispersal-related, adaptive changes in their behaviour. We investigated whether the drywood termite Cryptotermes secundus altered its behaviour in response to an infestation with parasitic, astigmatic mites. The frequency of the vital, dispersal-related behaviours allogrooming and proctodeal trophallaxis did not differ between colonies or between individuals with mites compared to without mites. However, activity levels were lower in mite-infested colonies and individuals spent more time resting and feeding when mites were present in the colony, irrespective of whether they were infested themselves or not. This behavioural pattern shown by individuals from infested mite-colonies is known to be associated with a development of C. secundus workers into winged dispersing sexuals. As dispersing individuals were less likely to have mites, this behavioural response to the mites' infestation might be an adaptive response to escape the deteriorating nest conditions.


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