Frontiers in zoology

Patterns and dynamics of neutral lipid fatty acids in ants - implications for ecological studies.

PMID 28717381


Trophic interactions are a fundamental aspect of ecosystem functioning, but often difficult to observe directly. Several indirect techniques, such as fatty acid analysis, were developed to assess these interactions. Fatty acid profiles may indicate dietary differences, while individual fatty acids can be used as biomarkers. Ants are among the most important terrestrial animal groups, but little is known about their lipid metabolism, and no study so far used fatty acids to study their trophic ecology. We set up a feeding experiment with high- and low-fat food to elucidate patterns and dynamics of neutral lipid fatty acids (NLFAs) assimilation in ants. We asked whether dietary fatty acids are assimilated through direct trophic transfer, how diet influences NLFA total amounts and patterns over time, and whether these assimilation processes are similar across species and life stages. Ants fed with high-fat food quickly accumulated specific dietary fatty acids (C18:2n6, C18:3n3 and C18:3n6), compared to ants fed with low-fat food. Dietary fat content did not affect total body fat of workers or amounts of fatty acids extensively biosynthesized by animals (C16:0, C18:0, C18:1n9). Larval development had a strong effect on the composition and amounts of C16:0, C18:0 and C18:1n9. NLFA compositions reflected dietary differences, which became more pronounced over time. Assimilation of specific dietary NLFAs was similar regardless of species or life stage, but these factors affected dynamics of other NLFAs, composition and total fat. We showed that ants accumulated certain dietary fatty acids via direct trophic transfer. Fat content of the diet had no effect on lipids stored by ants, which were able to synthesize high amounts of NLFAs from a sugar-based diet. Nevertheless, dietary NLFAs had a strong effect on metabolic dynamics and profiles. Fatty acids are a useful tool to study trophic biology of ants, and could be applied in an ecological context, although factors that affect NLFA patterns should be taken into account. Further studies should address which NLFAs can be used as biomarkers in natural ant communities, and how factors other than diet affect fatty acid dynamics and composition of species with distinct life histories.

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Trimethylsulfonium hydroxide solution, ~0.25 M in methanol, for GC derivatization