The social organization of termites, unlike that of other social insects, is characterized by a highly plastic caste system. With the exception of the alates, all other individuals in a colony remain at an immature stage of development. Workers in particular remain developmentally flexible; they can switch castes to become soldiers or neotenics. Juvenile hormone (JH) is known to play a key role in turning workers into soldiers. In this study, we analyzed differences in cuticular hydrocarbon (CHC) profiles among castes, paying particular attention to the transition of workers to soldiers, in the subterranean termite species Reticulitermes flavipes. CHCs have a fundamental function in social insects as they serve as cues in inter- and intraspecific recognition. We showed that (1) the CHC profiles of the different castes (workers, soldiers, nymphs and neotenics) are different and (2) when workers were experimentally exposed to a JH analog and thus induced to become soldiers, their CHC profiles were modified before and after the worker-presoldier molt and before and after the presoldier-soldier molt.
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