Head-butting as an Early Indicator of Reproductive Disinhibition in the Termite Zootermopsis nevadensis

Clint Penick, Beth Trobaugh, Colin S. Brent, Juergen Liebig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


In lower termites, functionally sterile larval helpers are totipotent-capable of becoming reproductively active with the loss of their colony's king or queen. Full reproductive development may take several weeks, but initiation of this developmental response most likely occurs shortly after colony members detect when a reproductive-specific signal is missing. We investigated the early response of termite helpers to the removal of their king and queen in the basal termite species Zootermopsis nevadensis. Within 6-12 h after reproductives were removed, helpers displayed an increase in head-butting-a behavior associated with dominance in other termite species as well as in closely related roaches. The loss of just one reproductive, either the king or queen, was also sufficient to cause an increase in head-butting. We did not find evidence, however, that this response was sex-specific: males and females were equally likely to increase head-butting independent of the sex of the reproductive that was removed. Finally, we discovered that reproductive-specific compounds present on the cuticle of king and queen termites were also present in their feces, but the presence of the feces did not seem sufficient to inhibit the increased head-butting after the reproductives were removed. Collectively, these results indicate that termite workers readily detect the loss of reproductives in their colony and that they at least initially respond in a non sex-specific manner.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)23-34
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Insect Behavior
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013


  • Fertility signal
  • feces
  • neotenic reproduction
  • sex-specific response
  • termites

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Insect Science


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