Discrimination and aggressive responses toward non-nestmates have been observed in a number of termite species, but the mechanism is poorly understood. Here I present the novel hypothesis that differential intestinal bacteria composition leads to production of colony-specific chemical cues that enable nestmate recognition.
The intestinal microflora of a lower termite, Reticulitermes speratus, consisted of many bacteria species. The composition of the intestinal bacteria was exclusively colony-specific. Termites that had adsorbed an unfamiliar odor of bacteria sampled from another colony were fiercely attacked by nestmates. Experimental manipulation of the composition of bacteria by antibiotics successfully changed the recognition behavior toward nestmates. These results indicate that intestinal bacteria play an important role in nestmate recognition.