Many of you are probably aware of the fact that insects communicate through pheromone secretions. Insects can sense certain odors through their own unique olfactory mechanisms. Obviously, an insect’s olfactory system is markedly different from a human’s olfactory system since insects do not “sniff” out odors like mammalian species do. Humans and other mammals perceive odors as they breathe air, but since insects do not possess noses, the manner in which insects sense odors is not immediately clear to a layman. The pheromones that insects use to communicate are actually small molecules that travel through the environment from insect to insect. These molecules carry information relating to food sources, nestmates, enemy attacks, colony distress signals and other environmental cues. These molecules are sent and received by insects of the same species, but many species can also receive pheromones secreted by entirely different species. For example, predatory snakes can track army ant colonies by sensing and following the ant’s pheromone trails. Although scientists have long known that insects communicate via pheromones, the manner in which pheromone molecules were absorbed by certain insects had not always been well understood. Understanding this process is especially interesting when it comes to learning more about social insects since social insects are known for their sophisticated architectural feats that rely on social cooperation for success. A study conducted on the olfactory system in dampwood termites revealed more about the process of pheromone communication in social insects.
To put it simply, dampwood termites sense pheromones through their antennae. Beneath the surface of a termite’s antenna sensors lies the olfactory receptor nerve. The pheromone molecules must make contact with this nerve receptor in order for a termite to receive information relating to its colony. However, there is a layer of fluid acting as a barrier to this nerve receptor that the hydrophobic pheromone molecule cannot penetrate. Somehow, pheromone molecules are able to activate the olfactory nerve receptor despite the liquid barrier, this process is called “chemoreception”. As it turns out, termite’s possess odor-binding proteins that surround the pheromone molecule with a water soluble coat. This water soluble coating allows the pheromone molecule to penetrate the liquid layer, thus allowing for contact with the olfactory receptor. For dampwood termites, and likely all termite species, odor-binding receptors allow for chemoreception to occur within their olfactory neural systems.
Do you believe that termite predators may have evolved a similar olfactory system to termites in order to make hunting for termites easier?
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