American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

“Female density-dependent chemical warfare underlies fitness effects of group sex ratio in flour beetles”

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Imroze Khan, Arun Prakash, Swastika Issar, Mihir Umarani, Rohit Sasidharan, Jagadeesh N. Masagalli, Prakash Lama, Radhika Venkatesan, and Deepa Agashe (Mar 2018)

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Females (not males) drive fitness effects of biased sex ratio via secreted toxins for resource (not sexual) competition

Female <i>Tribolium castaneum</i> beetle secreting quinones (yellow mass) from thoracic gland.<br />(Credit: Deepa Agashe and Gaurav Agavekar, copyright NCBS)
Female Tribolium castaneum beetle secreting quinones (yellow mass) from thoracic gland.
(Credit: Deepa Agashe and Gaurav Agavekar, copyright NCBS)


In animals, skewed sex ratios can affect individual fitness either via sexual (e.g. intersexual conflict or intrasexual mate competition) or non-sexual interactions (e.g. sex-specific resource competition). Because most analyses of sex ratio focus on sexual interactions, the relative importance of sexual vs. non-sexual mechanisms remains unclear. We tested both mechanisms in the flour beetle Tribolium castaneum, where male-biased sex ratios increase female fitness relative to unbiased or female-biased groups. Although flour beetles show both sexual and non-sexual (resource) competition, we found that sexual interactions did not explain female fitness. Instead, female fecundity was dramatically reduced even after a brief exposure to flour conditioned by other females. Earlier studies suggested that secreted toxins might mediate density-dependent population growth in flour beetles. We identified ethyl- and methyl-benzoquinone (EBQ and MBQ; “quinones”), as components of adult stink glands that regulate female fecundity. In female-biased groups (i.e. at high female density), females upregulated quinones and suppressed each other’s reproduction. In male-biased groups, low female density and associated low quinone levels maximized fecundity. Thus, females appear to use quinones as weapons for female-specific, density-dependent interference competition. Our results underscore the importance of non-sexual interference competition that may often underlie the fitness consequences of skewed sex ratios.