Trail pheromones are semiochemicals secreted from the body of an individual to impact the behavior of another individual receiving it. Trail pheromones often serve as a multi purpose chemical secretion that leads members of its own species towards a food source, while representing a territorial mark in the form of an allomone to organisms outside of their species. Specifically, trail pheromones are often incorporated with secretions of more than one exocrine gland to produce a higher degree of specificity. Considered one of the primary chemical signaling methods in which many social insects depend on, trail pheromone deposition can be considered one of the main facets to explain the success of social insect communication today. Many species of ants, including those in the genus Crematogaster use trail pheromones.
In 1962, Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson published one of the first concrete studies constructing the groundwork for the notion of trail pheromones. Claiming an odor trail is deposited by the sting apparatus of the hymenopteran Solenopsis saevissima which results in a pathway from the colony to a food source, this study encouraged further investigation of how this chemical is laid, how it affects communication between species within and outside of its own, the evolution of the semiochemical, etc.
The pheromone is synthesized in the same region as venom, or other primary hormonal departments within the organism. Often, trail pheromone synthesis occurs in the ventral venom gland, poison gland, Dufour's gland, sternal gland, or hindgut. When secreted, the pheromone is dropped in a blotch-like fashion from the foraging organism onto the surface leading to the food source. As the organism proceeds to the food source, the trail pheromone creates a narrow and precise pathway between the food source and the nesting location, which another organism of the same species, and often the same nest, follows precisely. Commonly, an organism, when initially laying down the trail may renew the trail a number of times to demonstrate the value of the food source while running in tandem. Once the trail is laid, other members of the species will recognize the chemical signal and follow the trail, and each individually renew the trail on the way back to the home source. While this pheromone is constantly deposited by its members, the chemicals diffuse up into the environment propagating its message. Once the food source runs out the organisms will simply skip the task of renewing the trail on the way back, thus resulting in the diffusion and weakening of the pheromone. Studies have shown that with quality of food, distance from nest, and amounts of food, the strength of the trail pheromone may vary. Often the foraging individual may synthesize the trail pheromone as a mixture of chemicals produced by different glands which allows such specificity. While members of the same species who discovered the food constantly renew this trail pathway, as the chemical is secreted into the environment as a signal for food in their umwelt, the very same chemical can often be interpreted as a territorial mark for outside species.
Trail pheromone deposition from an organism is correlated with its environment. In the event where a food source is identified and a trail pheromone is deposited, certain wildlife may flock towards or away from the trail causing temporary or dispersal of the population or individual. With relocation of wildlife, surrounding plant life may change as well; for example, pollen attached to the migrating organism is also relocating, thus may potentially regenerate in different patches.
Abiotic factors affecting trail pheromones
- When the foraging organism's optimal foraging temperature is present, the organism will be more likely to search for food. Often, the further temperature falls out of this range, the less likely foraging will occur, thus, the less likely trail pheromones will be deposited.
- alongside with temperature, foraging occurs more during some seasons than others. With a change in season comes additional factors: a change in predators organism to avoid, change in food supply, and change in light availability. Often foraging organisms choose preference over such factors.
- If it is too humid or not enough, organisms may choose not to forage
- Other chemicals
- Other surrounding chemicals may interfere with strength of pheromones.
Biotic factors affecting trail pheromones
- Surrounding animals
- Although the pheromone may diffuse off as a territorial representation of the foraging organism, that does not secure the safety of the organism. In fact, this act may do the opposite and attract competing wildlife. With more surrounding predators, or competitors, comes more difficulty with foraging for a food source. Especially in cases were food is scarce, surrounding organism. Depending on the cost vs benefits tradeoff, an organism, in a situation where it may need the food supply, may be willing to risk the dangers to obtain it. Also, with more predators or competitors out there, the risks of foraging increase.
- Surrounding plants
- Factors such as type and abundance of surrounding plants in an environment may certainly affect the degree of trail pheromone potency. Plants residing in close proximity to the odor trail may emit an abundance of chemicals which can either mask, change, or possibly even help propagate the signal. Additionally, areas saturated with plant life may block or alter trail pheromone diffusion.
- E.O. Wilson and M. Pavan. 1959. Source and Specificity of chemical releasers of social behavior in the dolichoderine ants. Psyche 65: 41-51
- E.O. Wilson. 1962. Chemical communication among workers of the fire ant Solenopsis saevissima (Fr. Smith). 3. The experimental induction of social responses. Anim. Behav. 10:159-164.
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