Biological Research

A Great Chinese Wall of Ants

23.7.2014 | In the forests of Southeast China, Freiburg ecologists discovered a new species of wasps that protects its offspring with dead ants. Probably the dead animals' smell wards off predators and parasites.
A German-Chinese research team has discovered a wasp with a unique nest-building strategy: The 'bone-house wasp' shuts off its nest with a chamber full of dead ants in order to protect its offspring from enemies, as shown by Michael Staab and Prof. Alexandra-Maria Klein from the University of Freiburg, Germany. No strategy like this has ever been discovered before in the entire animal kingdom.

"When I first saw one of these ant-filled chambers, I thought immediately of the ancient Great Wall of China. Just like the Great Wall protected the Chinese Empire against attacks from raiding nomad tribes, the ant wall protects the offspring of this newly described wasp species from enemies," recounts Staab. Researchers from the Museum of Natural History Berlin and from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing were also part of the discovery team.

The newly discovered 'bone-house wasp'
Bild vergrößern
The newly discovered 'bone-house wasp'
The new species with the scientific name Deuteragenia ossarium (named after ossuarium: bone-house) belongs to the family of spider wasps. In most species of this family, each female builds her own nest consisting of several cells or chambers. Each cell is filled with a single spider that has previously been paralyzed by a sting and on which the larva feeds. The same is also true of the newly discovered 'bone-house wasp', which in contrast to all other known spider wasp species does not leave the last cell empty but fills it with dead ants.

The scientists conducted experiments demonstrating that the ant wall is a very effective means of protecting the nest. The offspring of the bone-house wasp are attacked far less frequently than those of other wasps from the same ecosystem. The researchers assume that the unique ant wall gives the nest a smell similar to the nest of a well-fortified ant species, thus scaring off potential enemies. The precise defense mechanism is still unclear and subject of ongoing research. "The discovery of a new species raises new questions. We want to understand why biodiversity is important for a functioning ecosystem," says Prof. Klein. The research cooperation 'Biodiversity-Ecosystem Functioning (BEF) China' conducting this project is funded by the German Research Foundation DFG.
A chamber full of dead ants
Bild vergrößern
(© Merten Ehmig)


A chamber full of dead ants | seals the nest of the newly discovered wasp.
  (© University of Freiburg, AcademiaNet)
Rudolf-Werner Dreier

More information

Source

  • Staab, M., Ohl, M., Zhu, C.D., Klein, A.M. 2014. A unique nest-protection strategy in a new species of spider wasp. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101592

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