University of Cambridge > > Behaviour, Ecology & Evolution Seminar Series > Queens, workers, and working queens: morphological adaptations related to caste-specific behaviours in ants

Queens, workers, and working queens: morphological adaptations related to caste-specific behaviours in ants

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The ecological dominance of ants in terrestrial ecosystems is unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Ants exploit a broader spectrum of trophic resources compared to other social insects, and have radiated into more species. This evolutionary success is often attributed to the females’ division of labour into a reproductive queen caste and a functionally sterile worker caste responsible for colony maintenance. However, because no other group of social insects reaches equivalent levels of adaptive radiation, factors other than social behaviour might have helped shape ant diversification. Queen-worker dimorphism is especially dramatic in ants because workers are completely wingless. The current paradigm views ant workers as a caste of degenerate queens, with the idea that simple suppression of gene expression, tissue development, and behavior (both reproduction and dispersal) are the basis for their phenotype. Winglessness in ant workers is thought to be advantageous only because it facilitates movement in tight cavities. In this talk, I provide data showing that workers are much more than simply wingless queens. Several skeletomuscular modifications provide increased force to the head-thorax articulation, presumably contributing to the workers’ sophisticated use of their forward-pointing mandibles. I then show that queens belonging to different clades have independently acquired similar thoracic modifications, which in this caste correlate with the alternative modes of colony foundation. Given that the innovations in workers are present across all ant lineages, I suggest that their evolution in the common ancestor contributed to the diversification of foraging habits, and hence ecological dominance of this group.

This talk is part of the Behaviour, Ecology & Evolution Seminar Series series.

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