Article révisé par les pairs
Résumé : The ecological success of ants relies on their high level of sociality and cooperation between genetically related nestmates. However, these group-living insects suffer from elevated risks of disease outbreak in the whole nest. To face this sanitary challenge, social and spatial distancing of pathogen-exposed individuals from susceptible nestmates appear to be simple, although efficient, ways to limit the propagation of contact-transmitted pathogens. Here we question whether spatial distancing in Myrmica rubra ants is an active response of diseased individuals that correlates with their level of infectiousness. We contaminated foragers with spores of Metarhizium brunneum entomopathogenic fungus. We daily tracked the location of these pathogen-exposed individuals and we analyzed their movement patterns until their death on the 5th day post-contamination. Quite unexpectedly, we found that contagious individuals, whose body was covered with infectious spores, did not reduce their mobility nor stayed far away from larvae in order to limit pathogen transmission to healthy nestmates. Spatial distancing occurred later when diseased individuals were no longer contagious because spores had penetrated their body. These sick ants mainly stayed outside the nest, were less mobile and showed a shift from a superdiffusive to subdiffusive walking pattern. Furthermore, these diseased ants did not actively head towards directions that were opposite to the nest entrance. This study found no evidence for early spatial distancing by contaminated M.rubra workers that would fit to the actual risk of colony-wide contagion. Coupled to a lower mobility and area-reduced walking patterns, the late distancing of moribund individuals appears to be a symptom of sickness resulting from fungus-induced physical and physiological dysfunctions. Besides questioning the truly altruistic nature of death in isolation in this system (and potentially others), we discuss about the ecological and physiological constraints that explain the absence of early distancing when some ant species are exposed to pathogens.