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Orphaned Earwig Insects Learn To Grow Big On Their Own, But Abandon Offspring, Too

Nov 17, 2015 02:02 PM EST
The lack of maternal care can have long-lasting transgenerational effects on earwigs, one of which is pictured here defending her eggs.
(Photo : Joël Meunier)

Abandonment can have long-lasting effects on animals that depend on maternal care during the early years of their life. Often, mothers provide vital food and protection for their young, so newborns may struggle when learning to forage and defend themselves. Using the pincered insects called earwigs to study such impacts on orphaned animals, researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) reveal surprising results.

While one would assume maternal neglect would result in scrawny or malnourished individuals, it turns out young earwigs, known as nymphs, raised without mothers actually grow to be much larger adults than those with parents, according to a news release. However, researchers also discovered orphaned earwigs tend to abandon their own offspring, too. This sheds light on the evolution of social behavior and family life styles.

"Surprisingly, the offspring even had larger bodies and longer forceps on their abdomens. Under our laboratory conditions, the loss of the mother turned out to have positive rather than the negative repercussions that we are familiar with in the case of mammals and that we also expected to see in the case of the earwigs," Jos Kramer, one of the study authors from the Department of Evolutionary Biology at JGU's Institute of Zoology, explained in the release.

The only catch is that the loss of parental, or brood, care seems to have significant longer-term transgenerational effects; it  ultimately affects the early development of family life in the species. In fact, it becomes a part of the chemical reactions within the earwig's genes, meaning that it affects the epigenics of the species. 

"It was previously assumed that the ramifications associated with brood care were not inherited, but now we see that there is, in fact, a -- possibly epigenetic -- transfer," Kramer added.

Earwigs were chosen as test subjects because they reproduce quickly. Their study was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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