Eusociality Social Organization And Social Diversity

Except for a few species that have secondarily lost the worker caste, all ants are eusocial: they have an overlap of adult generations, cooperative brood care, and reproduction dominated by a minority of the colony's members. Typically, an established ant colony consists of one or more queens (each of which may have mated with one or more winged males on a nuptial flight), an all-female set of wingless workers, and the colony's brood of eggs, larvae, and pupae. The majority of queens mate only before they establish a colony. Thereafter, they store the sperm they have received.

All ants have haplodiploid sex determination. This property probably had a major role in the evolution of their eusociality through kin selection. Males are haploid, having only a single set of chromosomes, and thus the sperm that individual males produce is genetically homogeneous. Hence, the (diploid) daughters of the same mother and father are unusually closely related to one another, a circumstance likely to have favored the evolution of female workers. Nevertheless, there can be continuing conflicts within colonies between the workers and the queen (or queens) over the sex ratios they produce and which colony members produce the males. Queens can choose to produce either unfertilized (haploid) eggs destined to become males or fertilized (diploid) eggs. The latter may develop into workers or potential new queens (gynes) generally depending on how much food they receive as larvae. The workers may or may not be sterile. Fertile workers produce viable (unfertilized) haploid eggs that can develop into males. Hence, there can be conflict both among the workers and between the workers and the queen over whose sons the colony produces. Indeed, in many species of ants with only small numbers of workers in their mature colonies, there are dominance hierarchies among the workers, who fight one another over egg production. Sometimes the queen moves with active aggression against the most dominant worker to curtail its production of sons in favor of her own. In addition, even when workers are sterile and serve one, singly mated queen, they may prefer to raise more of the queen's daughters, to whom they are more closely related, than the queen's sons. For all these reasons, the study of ants has had a major impact in recent pioneering evolutionary biology because these insects provide test cases by which the evolutionary resolution of the tension between cooperation and conflict can be explored. It is clear, though, that the apparent social cohesion of ant colonies is often partly an illusion.

Among ants, there is a diversity of mating systems and social organizations. So even though it is tempting to think of the typical ant colony as having a single, singly mated queen and occupying a single nest site, the diversity of social systems among the ants is in fact huge. For example, many ant species consist of facultatively multiqueened (polygynous) colonies. Indeed, roughly half of European ant species exhibit polygyny, and there seems to be no reason to regard this as an unusual proportion. Some ant colonies are founded by solitary queens; some by groups of unrelated queens that may later fight over who will be the one to succeed. Other colonies simultaneously occupy multiple nests (polydomy), a habit often associated with polygyny, while others exhibit colony fission, with both daughter colonies usually being monogy-nous. Most persistent polygyny is associated with the secondary adoption of queens. Unusual social systems include queenless ants, workerless ants (inquilines), and slave-making ants. In certain queenless species, the workerlike females produce other diploid females through a parthenogenetic process called thelytoky. By contrast, certain inquilines have dispensed with the worker caste, and queens infiltrate and exploit established colonies of other species. Slave making may occur both intraspecifically and interspecifically. Interspecific slave making is also associated with nonindependent colony foundation in which slave-maker queens infiltrate established colonies of their host species, kill the host queen or queens, and produce workers that are reared by currently available host workers. The slave-maker workers raid other neighboring host colonies to capture large larvae and pupae. Such raids thus replenish the stocks of slave workers, which do all the foraging and brood rearing for the slave makers. There are also ant species in which there are polymorphic queens, others in which there are polymorphic males, and many in which there are polymorphic workers.

One of the outcomes of eusociality is that established colonies can be well defended by the workers against enemies. Thus, ant colonies are relatively K-selected; that is, they are selected to hold onto resources and to persist for long periods rather than being ephemeral, here-today-gone-tomorrow, r-strategists. Associated with this trait is the extreme longevity of ant queens. It is estimated that they can live 100 times longer than other solitary insects of a similar size. Worker populations in mature, well-established monogynous colonies range from a few tens of millions to 20 million, and certain so-called supercolonies consist of a huge network of linked nests each with many queens. One supercolony of

Formica yessensis in Japan may have as many as 300 million workers. Given such longevities and densities, it is clear that ants may also prove to be important model systems for understanding the spread of disease or the evolution of mechanisms to minimize the spread of disease among viscous populations of close kin. It is even possible that polygyny and multiple mating (polyandry) have evolved, at least in part, to promote genetic heterogeneity within colonies and thus help to minimize disease risks.

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