Maternal death relaxes developmental inhibition in nymphal aphid defenders

James H. Withgott, D. Kilpatrick Abbot, Nancy A. Moran

Abstract

In certain aphids, first–instar nymphs defend their gall by attacking intruding arthropod predators. One correlate of such defensive behaviour is a lengthened duration of the first nymphal stadium during the galling phase of the life cycle. A prolonged first stadium allows a large army of first–instar defenders to accumulate, which may be advantageous for gall defence. The factors determining developmental delay have been unclear, however. Our field experiment with Pemphigus obesinymphae, a North American gall–forming aphid with defensive first–instar nymphs, tests whether first–stadium duration is influenced by the death of the colony's fundatrix (mother). We killed fundatrices in certain galls, left those in control galls alive, and counted aphids in each stadium in each gall. Galls in which fundatrices were killed contained a lower proportion of first–instar defenders and more late–instar nymphs than did galls with living fundatrices, indicating that maternal death dramatically increased developmental rate of nymphs. Possibly nymphal aphids respond adaptively to environmental cues that signal a threat to the colony's welfare. Alternatively, the fundatrix actively suppresses offspring development in order to maintain a large army of soldiers to protect her gall. The results add a new layer of complexity to our understanding of social aphid systems.