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Behavior of ant queens found to be shaped by their social environments

The behavior of ant queens found to be shaped by their social environments
The presence of workers both initiates and maintains the queen's behavioral specialization. (a) The emergence of workers correlates with the behavioral specialization of queens. Founding queens (n = 12) reduced brood care after producing the first workers (χ2 = 35.63, p < 0.0001). (b) The experimental addition of workers drives the queen's specialization. Founding queens provided with workers (n = 29) showed lower brood care levels than founding queens kept without workers (n = 25, χ2 = 596.33, p < 0.0001). The effect of worker presence was already detected 20 h after the addition of workers (χ2 = 221.28, p < 0.0001). (c) The queen specialization is reversible after 3 days. Founding queens that had their workers removed (n = 16) performed more brood care than queens that just received workers (n = 16, t = 6.19, p < 0.0001), but similar brood care as queens that never had any workers (n = 16, t = 0.15, p = 0.99). (d) The queen specialization is reversible after 2 years and 6 months. Established queens (n = 12) showed increased brood care both 24 h (t = 3.69, p = 0.0035) and 48 h (t = 3.07, p = 0.015) after their workers were removed. Colored dots and error bars represent means and standard errors, respectively, and grey dots show individual data points. Credit: Functional Ecology (2024). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.14536

The queens in colonies of social insects, such as ants, bees, and wasps, are considered the veritable embodiment of specialization in the animal kingdom.

The common perception is that the 's only task is to lay —and that this attribute is an inherent trait, not influenced by external factors. In contrast, recent research undertaken at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has demonstrated that in certain , the can play a crucial role in shaping the behavioral specialization of the queens.

"With regard to the ant species we studied, it is social factors that control whether queens become specialized or not. Our findings challenge the widely accepted notion of social insect queens as inherently specialized egg-laying machines," stated Dr. Romain Libbrecht.

The research was conducted by the Reproduction, Nutrition, and Behavior in Insect Societies group at JGU under the supervision of Dr. Romain Libbrecht, an evolutionary biologist. The corresponding paper has recently been published in Functional Ecology. Dr. Romain Libbrecht currently works at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in the Insect Biology Research Institute of the University of Tours.

Concept of insect societies as superorganisms consisting of specialized individuals

It is generally assumed that social insect colonies consist of queens that monopolize reproduction and sterile workers responsible for all non-reproduction-related tasks, such as the care of the brood (eggs and larvae).

Libbrecht's team now questioned this basic assumption. They focused on where the queens found new colonies alone and without the help of workers. "Interestingly, these founding queens are not yet specialized in terms of their behavior at this stage of their lives," Libbrecht said. "They themselves assume all tasks in the nest, such as brood care, to ensure successful production of the first generation of workers."

In their experiments, Libbrecht's group studied the black garden ant Lasius niger that is native to Germany. They found the social environment to be a core factor in determining the behavioral specialization of founding queens.

"The introduction of workers in the nests of founding queens suppressed the natural predisposition of the queens to look after their brood themselves. And, conversely, when we isolated queens specialized in egg-laying from their workers, they rapidly reverted to the brood care behavior observed in the case of founding queens, even after many years of specialization."

Libbrecht emphasized that the behavior observed during the study challenges the traditional view of social insect queens as being intrinsically specialized in egg production. Instead, the findings demonstrate that the presence of workers not only triggers the egg-laying specialization of queens but also actively maintains it in established colonies. The discovery of such social control of queen may reshape our understanding of the functioning of insect societies and their division of labor.

More information: Vahideh Majidifar et al, Ontogeny of superorganisms: Social control of queen specialization in ants, Functional Ecology (2024). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.14536

Journal information: Functional Ecology

Citation: Behavior of ant queens found to be shaped by their social environments (2024, March 26) retrieved 28 May 2024 from
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