Reporting tomorrow (Jan. 22, 1999) in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Cornell University biologist Janet S. Shellman-Reeve describes the not-so-blissful scene on a rotting log when the seven-year itch occurs in the insect couple's first two hours.
-- Just an hour after landing on the log where she will spend most of her life with a newfound mate, a female termite might invite another male to the nest site to fight her mate for the right to father and raise her young.
-- A just-paired male can wander off in search of a better female.
-- Nest mates might fight each other when a potential suitor is near. Biting off the tip of a mate's antenna might squelch thoughts of separation, Shellman-Reeve hypothesizes.
Shellman-Reeve's study of the wood-dwelling, biparental termite Zootermopsis nevadensis marks the first scientific documentation of behavior called "mutual mate choice" among insect pairs that cooperatively provide long-term care for their young.
"Having second thoughts and choosing a better mate to share the heavy investment in parental care is a well-known strategy in vertebrates -- including humans -- but this is the first report of mutual mate choice in biparental insects," Shellman-Reeve says. "The process can be contentious and violent, but it makes sense. You want the best possible mate to help raise your offspring, and that's not always the first one you meet when you land on a log."
Her studies of Z. nevadensis, a species native to California woodlands,
also show what is on the mind of mate-swapping termites: Females usually choose
a male with a bigger head the second time
Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service