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No. 14: Winter 1981 Supplement

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Beetles Make Scents

Termite nests frequently host foreign species that seem to be accepted as fellow termites. Can't termites recognize the invaders? The authors believe that termites probably recognize one another by specific hydrocarbon labels synthesized on their cuticles. If the alien species were to be somehow marked with similar chemical identifiers, the blind termites might not know the difference. Howard et al think this may be the case with a species of beetle often found integrated into termite society. By chemi-cally analyzing beetle and termite cuticles, they have found both wearing the same hydrocarbon labels. Furthermore, the beetles synthesize their own chemical masks. This is an astounding instance of parallel or convergent evolution between remotely related species.

(Howard, R.W. et al, "Chemical Mimicry as an Integrating Mechanism....," Science, 210:431, 1980.)

Comment. Synthesizing exactly the right hydrocarbons was certainly a great stroke of good fortune for the beetles!

From Science Frontiers #14, Winter 1981. 1981-2000 William R. Corliss