The parasitic nematode Myrmeconema neotropicum infects workers of the neotropical arboreal ant Cephalotes atratus. Infected ants exhibit altered behavior, e.g., reduced aggression and slower tempo, as well as physical traits, e.g., gaster changes from shiny black to bright red. These changes are thought to induce fruit mimicry and attract frugivorous birds, which are the presumed paratenic hosts for the nematodes. We used respirometry to measure the energetic costs of nematode infection, testing the prediction of higher metabolic rates for infected workers maintaining both ant and nematode biomass. Contrary to this prediction, infected workers had lower mass-specific metabolic rates than uninfected workers. Parasites are limited to the gasters (abdomens) of adult ants, and infected gasters had 57% more mass, but 37% lower metabolic rates, compared to uninfected gasters. These results use a metabolic currency to measure, in vivo, the energetic costs of parasitism, and they shed light on the complex co-evolutionary relationship between host and parasite.
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Vol. 97 • No. 5