Talk Nerdy To Me: ‘Trophallaxis’

A blog series that teaches you complex science words which are sure to impress at the dinner table. Whether you are on a date, trying to impress your boss, or just trying to prove to your mom and dad that you have been listening in science class, this blog series is sure to come in handy!

“Trophallaxis” Definition: the transfer of food or other fluids among members of a community (typically social insects) through mouth-to-mouth [or anus-to-mouth!?] feeding.

Photo by Syed Rajeeb on

“Bringing home the bacon” can look very different depending on what species you are talking about. For humans; it’s a matter of securing money, driving to the store, buying food, and transporting it home using our vehicles and hands to carry them. For a social insect forager; it’s a matter of leaving the nest, finding liquid food, devouring as much food as it can and storing it in a special body part called the ‘forager’s crop‘ (sometimes called the “social stomach”), and returning to the nest to regurgitate some of the food back out for other nestmates. Trophallaxis mostly occurs in insect species that live off a heavy liquid food diet. Upon returning to the nest with a crop full of food, the forager will approach nestmates, who will stimulate the forager by various taps to the face with their legs and antennae which triggers the regurgitation of food. During periods of scarce food supplies, some workers will devote their lives to becoming ‘living reservoirs’ and overextend their crops with food until their abdomens bulge abnormally (a liquid food-filled balloon for a rear-end), thus serving as a long term food supplier for nestmates.

To illustrate trophallaxis, I thought of an old “Kirby” video game I played all the time as a kid. During the game, when Kirby finds food, he can quickly approach his teammates and ‘share’ it with them to restore health. But this ‘sharing’ of food always looked like a somewhat disturbing display of mouth-to-mouth transfer of food. But in terms of “trophallaxis,” this now gives new meaning Kirby’s strategy of sharing food!

In some rare cases, insect species may even express abdominal trophallaxis, which is the exchange of fluids from the ‘rear end’ of one worker to the mouth of the other worker. This is mostly seen between adult workers and larvae, but there has been some observed abdominal trophallaxis between two adults as well. The purpose of this form of trophallaxis is unknown, but some scientists think it might be used to transfer beneficial gut microbes to younger nestmates. In a bizarre and somewhat disturbing instance, a species of ‘slavemaker’ ants will use abdominal trophallaxis to distribute liquid droplets to their host ant species (or ‘slaves’), perhaps as a sign of dominance over them, though its purpose is also still unknown.

[Click “go” in the image below to learn some “Trophallaxis” phrases to use at dinner time!]

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