Royal corruption is rife in the ant world

Mar 11, 2008
Royal corruption is rife in the ant world
Leaf cutting ant queen and worker. Credit: D.R. Nash

Far from being a model of social co-operation, the ant world is riddled with cheating and corruption – and it goes all the way to the top, according to scientists from the Universities of Leeds and Copenhagen.

Ants have always been thought to work together for the benefit of the colony rather than for individual gain. But Dr Bill Hughes from Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences has found evidence to shatter this illusion.

With Professor Jacobus Boomsma from the University of Copenhagen, he’s discovered that certain ants are able to cheat the system, ensuring their offspring become reproductive queens rather than sterile workers.

“The accepted theory was that queens were produced solely by nurture: certain larvae were fed certain foods to prompt their development into queens and all larvae could have that opportunity,” explains Dr Hughes. “But we carried out DNA fingerprinting on five colonies of leaf-cutting ants and discovered that the offspring of some fathers are more likely to become queens than others. These ants have a ‘royal’ gene or genes, giving them an unfair advantage and enabling them to cheat many of their altruistic sisters out of their chance to become a queen themselves.”

But what intrigued the scientists was that these ‘royal’ genetic lines were always rare in each colony.

Says Dr Hughes: “The most likely explanation has to be that the ants are deliberately taking steps to avoid detection. If there were too many of one genetic line developing into queens in a single colony, the other ants would notice and might take action against them. So we think the males with these royal genes have evolved to somehow spread their offspring around more colonies and so escape detection. The rarity of the royal lines is actually an evolutionary strategy by the cheats to escape suppression by the altruistic masses that they exploit.”

A few times each year, ant colonies produce males and new queens which fly off from their colonies to meet and mate. The males die shortly after mating and the females go on to found new colonies. The researchers are keen to study this process, to determine if their hypothesis is correct and the mating strategy of males with royal genes ensures their rarity, to keep their advantages undetected by their ‘commoner’ counterparts.

However, the scientists’ discovery does prove that, although social insect colonies are often cited as proof that societies can be based on egalitarianism and cooperation, they are not quite as utopian as they appear.

“When studying social insects like ants and bees, it’s often the cooperative aspect of their society that first stands out,” says Dr Hughes. “However, when you look more deeply, you can see there is conflict and cheating – and obviously human society is also a prime example of this. It was thought that ants were an exception, but our genetic analysis has shown that their society is also rife with corruption – and royal corruption at that!”

Source: University of Leeds

Explore further: 'Tiger heavyweight' Nepal hosts anti-poaching summit

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Social insects, your grandma and Darwin

Jan 13, 2015

Darwin was not a fan of social insects, or at least not of those you're likely to step on or be stung by. Some of these critters—notably ants and termites, and certain wasps, bees and aphids—exhibit a high degree of social ...

Vicious queen ants use mob tactics to reach the top

Sep 30, 2011

Leptothorax acervorum ants live all over the Northern hemisphere, but their reproductive strategy depends on habitat. Colonies are polygynous (more than one queen) in the forest of Siberia and central Europe, but functionally ...

Why some butterflies sound like ants

Oct 29, 2014

Ant nests can offer a lot to organisms other than just ants. They are well-protected, environmentally-stable and resource-rich spaces—in many ways everything a tiny creature could ask for in a home. So ...

Recommended for you

'Tiger heavyweight' Nepal hosts anti-poaching summit

15 hours ago

Nepal's success in turning tiger-fearing villagers into their protectors has seen none of the endangered cats killed for almost three years, offering key lessons for an anti-poaching summit opening in Kathmandu ...

GMO mosquito plan sparks outcry in Florida

Jan 31, 2015

A British company's plan to unleash hordes of genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida to reduce the threat of dengue fever and other diseases has sparked an outcry from fearful residents.

Population genomics unveil seahorse domain

Jan 30, 2015

In a finding vital to effective species management, a team including City College of New York biologists has determined that the lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) is more a permanent resident of the we ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Antryg
1 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2008
I fail to see how "corruption" is proven by some genes being more successful than others. . .

That's like saying that corruption is the cause of educated-populations living longer than non-educated populations.

While it is one single possible explanation, it doesn't even seem to be the "likely" cause.

Why not collect enough data so that its true nature can be seen, instead of this bogus "meaning" being declared?
nilbud
not rated yet Mar 27, 2008
Illuminanti

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.