Group Menzel

Chemical Ecology and Biotic Interactions

Keywords: chemical ecology, evolution of cuticular hydrocarbon profiles, antipredator behaviour, interspecific interactions, ecosystem functions of ants, ant community ecology, division of labor, tropical rainforest, ants, spiders, aphids.


Our group is interested in interspecific interactions between different ant species and between ants and other arthropods. Interactions between ant species can be competitive and aggressive, but also mutualistic, commensalistic or parasitic. We study these interactions from two perspectives: from a top-down perspective, we study community organization and ecosystem functions in ant communities in tropical rainforests. In this context we are also interested in biodiversity and ecosystem functions of ants and other arthropods in conventional agriculture and dynamic agroforestry.

From a bottom-up perspective, we investigate the mechanisms in specific interactions between few species. We study behavioural interactions and chemical cues that are involved in ant-ant and ant-aphid interactions, as well as predator-prey interactions between other arthropods.

These interactions are often driven by chemical cues – cues from the insects’ body surface (cuticular hydrocarbons) or indirect cues, such as chemical footprints. We recently showed that ants respond to chemical footprints of other colonies and species, which may have great effects on their foraging behaviour. In general, the most important intra- and interspecific communication signal in ants and other insects are cuticular hydrocarbons (CHC). Therefore, we do not only investigate their role in interactions, but also study the proximate and ultimate factors that shape their composition. CHC experience selection from multiple sides, since beside their communication function they also act as waterproofing agent. In our group, we study how CHC profiles evolve and diversify in response to selection pressures arising from their multiple functions. Furthermore, we study how individual ants can adjust their profiles in response to different climatic conditions. To understand the molecular basis of CHC biosynthesis and evolution, we analyse gene expression in ants from different climatic conditions and in closely related, but chemically different ants.

Current research questions include:

  • Climatic impacts on the CHC profile of ants, and their consequences for drought resistance, nestmate recognition and CHC material properties
  • Avoidance of competition: Behavioural responses to chemical footprints in ants
  • Interactions of insect surfaces with capture threads of cribellate spiders
  • CHC diversification in mutualistic ant-ant associations (parabioses) in tropical South America


Further topics for research practicals, bachelor, diploma or master theses include:

  • Niche differentiation in Central European ants
  • What do ants eat? Dietary niche partitioning within and across ant species
  • How do different ant species respond to chemical footprints of other insects?
  • Can ants learn to respond to certain footprints?
  • How does individual personality influence ant behaviour?
  • How does gene expression change when an ant acclimates to different temperatures?
  • Fungal communities in ant nests and on individual ant workers
  • How do cuticular hydrocarbons CHCs influence the resistance of insects against pathogens?
  • Physico-chemical properties of communication signals in ants and other insects
  • How is the chemical CHC composition linked to its physical properties?
  • Interactions of spiders with their insect prey
  • Mutualism or not? Costs and benefits in ant-aphid symbioses
  • Chemical diversification in ant species of tropical South America
  • How are chemical profiles and drought tolerance related across arthropod taxa?
  • Which factors determine the temperature niche and the drought tolerance of an insect?
  • How is CHC composition linked to the waterproofing ability of the CHC layer?

 Methods used:

  • Field experiments
  • Behavioural experiments in the lab
  • Chemical analyses of cuticular hydrocarbons and fatty acids using GC-MS
  • Microrheological measurements of viscosity (in collaboration with Bérengère Abou, Paris)
  • Transcriptome analyses (RNAseq)
  • microbial assays
  • Agent-based modelling

Please drop me an email if interested.



The 'ant crew' during our field season in French Guiana, October 2018

Group leader


PhD students / scientific employees:

  • Vanessa Menges: The role of chemical footprints for foraging and competitive interactions in ants
  • Lucas Jäger: The impact of cuticular chemistry and surface morphology of arthropods on adhesion forces in cribellate and ecribellate spider threads (co-supervisor Anna-Christin Joel)
  • Selina Huthmacher (Biophysical and functional consequences of cuticular hydrocarbon variation in ants)
  • Shadi Karimifard (Genomic and gene regulatory basis of rapid evolutionary diversification of a multifunctional trait) (co-supervisor Barbara Feldmeyer)
  • Katharina Wittmann (Interaktiver Insekten-Campus) (Zusammenarbeit mit Daniel Dreesmann)

Master students:

  • Gülsem Kara (Can ants learn responses to footprints?)
  • David Ruchatz (Acclimatory CHC changes of ants from different climatic regions analysed through automated integration)
  • Christine van Ooyen (Dietary niche of hoverflies over time)
  • Philippa Musiolik

Bachelor students:

  • Ida Völlger (Behavioural consistency of Lasius niger colonies)
  • Janina Wilk (Fungal communities in ant nests of different species)
  • Morwen Liebscher (Cuticular hydrocarbon variation and desiccation resistance in North American desert ants)
  • Daniel Burket (Cuticular hydrocarbons and sexual selection in Hawaiian crickets)

Former PhD students: