Background: Animals use environmental information to make developmental decisions to maximise their fitness. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans measures its environment to decide between arresting development as dauer larvae or continuing to grow and reproduce. Worms are thought to use ascarosides as signals of population density and this signalling is thought to be a species-wide honest signal. We compared recently wild C. elegans lines' dauer larva arrest when presented with the same ascaroside signals and in different food environments.
Results: We find that the hitherto canonical dauer larva response does not hold among these lines. Ascaroside molecules can, depending on the food environment, both promote and repress dauer larva formation. Further, these recently wild C. elegans lines also produce ascaroside mixtures that induce a wide diversity of dauer larva formation responses. We further find that the lines differ in the quantity and ratios of ascaroside molecules that they release. Some of the dauer larva formation responses are consistent with dishonest signalling.
Conclusions: Together, the results suggest that the idea that dauer larva formation is an honestly-signalled C. elegans-wide effect does not hold. Rather, the results suggest that ascaroside-based signalling is a public broadcast information system, but where the correct interpretation of that information depends on the worms' context, and is a system open to dishonest signalling.