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Differences in the reliance on cuticular hydrocarbons as sexual signaling and species discrimination cues in parasitoid wasps

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Cuticular hydrocarbons (CHC) have been documented to play crucial roles as species- and sex-specific cues in the chemical communication systems of a wide variety of insects. However, whether they are sufficient by themselves as the sole cue triggering sexual behavior as well as preference of con- over heterospecific mating partners is rarely assessed. We conducted behavioral assays in three representative species of parasitoid wasps (Hymenoptera: Pteromalidae) to determine their reliance on CHC as species-specific sexual signaling cues.


We found a surprising degree of either unspecific or insufficient sexual signaling when CHC are singled out as recognition cues. Most strikingly, the cosmopolitan species Nasonia vitripennis, expected to experience enhanced selection pressure to discriminate against other co-occurring parasitoids, did not discriminate against CHC of a partially sympatric species from another genus, Trichomalopsis sarcophagae. Focusing on the latter species, in turn, it became apparent that CHC are even insufficient as the sole cue triggering conspecific sexual behavior, hinting at the requirement of additional, synergistic sexual cues particularly important in this species. Finally, in the phylogenetically and chemically most divergent species Muscidifurax uniraptor, we intriguingly found both CHC-based sexual signaling as well as species discrimination behavior intact although this species is naturally parthenogenetic with sexual reproduction only occurring under laboratory conditions.


Our findings implicate a discrepancy in the reliance on and specificity of CHC as sexual cues in our tested parasitioid wasps. CHC profiles were not sufficient for unambiguous discrimination and preference behavior, as demonstrated by clear cross-attraction between some of our tested wasp genera. Moreover, we could show that only in T. sarcophagae, additional behavioral cues need to be present for triggering natural mating behavior, hinting at an interesting shift in signaling hierarchy in this particular species. This demonstrates the importance of integrating multiple, potentially complementary signaling modalities in future studies for a better understanding of their individual contributions to natural sexual communication behavior.

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