Termite colonies are families – millions of individual workers all descended from one king and one queen. But the colony itself tends to outlast this initial royal couple. When they die, new kings and queens rise to take their place. These secondary royals are a common feature of some families of termites, and they will often mate with each other for many generations. But there is more to this system than meets the eye.
Kenji Matsuura from Okayama University has found that the secondary queens are all genetically identical clones of the original. There are many copies, and they have no father – they developed from unfertilised eggs laid by the first queen through a process called parthenogenesis. These clones then mate with the king to produce the rest of the colony through normal sexual means.
It’s a fiendishly clever strategy. The original queen’s legacy to the colony is… herself. She effectively splits herself into several different bodies and in doing so, greatly increases the number of offspring she has. And because each of these descendants mates with the king, who has no genes in common with them, the colony neatly skirts around the problems of inbreeding.
In the Goualougo Triangle of the Republic of Congo, a chimpanzee is hungry for termites. Its prey lives within fortress-like nests, but the chimp knows how to infiltrate these. It plucks the stem from a nearby arrowroot plant and clips any leaves away with its teeth, leaving behind a trimmed, flexible stick that it uses to “fish” for termites.
Many chimps throughout Africa have learned to build these fishing-sticks. They insert them into termite nests as bait, and pull out any soldier termites that bite onto it. But the Goualougo chimps do something special. They deliberately fray the ends of their fishing sticks by running them through their teeth or pulling away separate fibres – just watch the chimp on the right in the video below.
The result is a stick with a brush-like tip, which is far more effective at gathering termites than the standard model. This population of chimps has modified the typical design of the fishing stick to turn it into a better tool. They truly are intelligent designers.