Neurohormonal changes associated with ritualized combat and the formation of a reproductive hierarchy in the ant Harpegnathos saltator

Clint Penick, Colin S. Brent, Kelly Dolezal, Juergen Liebig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Dominance rank in animal societies is correlated with changes in both reproductive physiology and behavior. In some social insects, dominance status is used to determine a reproductive division of labor, where a few colony members reproduce while most remain functionally sterile. Changes in reproduction and behavior in this context must be coordinated through crosstalk between the brain and the reproductive system. We investigated a role for biogenic amines in forming this connection in the ant Harpegnathos saltator. In this species, workers engage in an elaborate dominance tournament to establish a group of reproductive workers termed gamergates. We analyzed biogenic amine content in the brains of gamergates, insideworkers and foragers under stable colony conditions and found that gamergates had the highest levels of dopamine. Dopamine levels were also positively correlated with increased ovarian activity among gamergates. Next, we experimentally induced workers to compete in a reproductive tournament to determine how dopamine may be involved in the establishment of a new hierarchy. Dopamine levels rose in aggressive workers at the start of a tournament, while workers that were policed by their nestmates (a behavior that inhibits ovarian activity) showed a rapid decline in dopamine. In addition to dopamine, levels of serotonin and tyramine differed among castes, and these changes could contribute to differences in caste-specific behavioral patterns observed among non-reproductive workers. Overall, these results provide support that biogenic amines link changes in behavior and dominance with reproductive activity in H. saltator as well as drive differences in worker task performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1496-1503
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 1 2014


  • Aggression
  • Biogenic amines
  • Dominance
  • Dopamine
  • Social insects

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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