Does Communal Breeding Promote an Increase in Social Immunity in Burying Beetles?: A Test Case with Nicrophorus defodiens

Megha Raghuram Suswaram, Purdue University


Communal breeding is a reproductive system in which more than a single pair of individuals share parental care duties. Burying beetles (genus Nicrophorus) breed on small vertebrate carcasses, which is used as a food source for their young. On larger carcasses, burying beetles will breed communally, forming multiple male-female associations. A significant and costly component of parental investment by burying beetles is the preservation of the carcass with secretions containing immune molecules. Because this immune investment is for the benefit of the offspring, the behavior is a form of social immunity. We test the hypothesis that communal breeding in burying beetles evolved as a mechanism to increase the social immune investment on larger carcasses, which are more difficult to preserve. We used N. defodiens, a communal breeding burying beetle species to test the hypothesis. There were two experimental treatments wherein, the females either bred communally or non-communally. Our results show that the combined immune activity in the secretions were higher in communally breeding pairs than in the immune contribution of single male-female pairs. However, subordinate females were rarely observed on the carcass, and the level of social immune activity of dominant females was lower than females breeding singly. These data suggest that communal breeding in N. defodiens actually decreases the level of investment in social immunity. Our results demonstrate that the presence of multiple females, which is common under natural conditions, can greatly complicate patterns of social immunity investment in burying beetles.




Creighton, Purdue University.

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