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The Importance of Size in the Evolution of Complexity in Ants

By Claire Asher, on 16 September 2014

Ants are amongst the most abundant and successful species on Earth. They live in complex, cooperative societies, construct elaborate homes and exhibit many of the hallmarks of our own society. Some ants farm crops, others tend livestock. Many species have a major impact on the ecosystems they live in, dispersing seeds, consuming huge quantities of plant matter and predating other insect species. One of the major reasons for their enormous success is thought to be the impressive division of labour they exhibit. Theory suggests that, during the evolution of ants, increases in colony size drove increases in the complexity of their division of labour. However, there have been few previous attempts to test the hypothesis. A recent paper by GEE’s Professor Kate Jones and Phd student Henry Ferguson-Gow tested this hypothesis across the Attine ants, a large neotropical group including the famous leaf-cutter ants.

Ants, along with other social insects such as some bees, wasps and termites, are eusocial. This means that reproduction in their societies is dominated by just one or a few queens, while most of the colony members never reproduce, but instead perform other important tasks such as foraging, nest construction and defence. This system initially puzzled evolutionary biologists, because it poses the question, “how do non-reproductive workers pass on their genes?”. More specifically, “how can genes evolve to generate different morphology and behaviour in workers if they never reproduce and pass those genes on?”. This question was resolved in the 1960s, when W.D. Hamilton proposed the concepts of inclusive fitness and kin selection. He pointed out that although members of the non-reproductive worker caste do not directly pass on their genes, they are helping to ensure the survival of their siblings. Closely related individuals, such as siblings, share a large percentage of their genetic information, so by helping relatives, you are indirectly passing on your genes. Inclusive fitness is a measure of the total reproductive success of an individual, including direct fitness (gained by producing your own offspring) and indirect fitness (gained by helping relatives to reproduce). Kin selection, a form of natural selection, can therefore favour genes that cause sterility in the worker caste through it’s positive effects on the reproductive success of relatives.

When eusociality first began to evolve, colonies were probably small and although the worker caste likely refrained from reproduction most of the time, they weren’t completely sterile. In small colonies, keeping your reproductive options open makes a lot of sense – if the queen dies you may have a good chance of taking over the colony and reproducing yourself. Through evolutionary time, however, colony size increased in some lineages, and it is thought this may have driven increasing specialisation and commitment of individuals to their queen and worker roles. As colony size increases, your chances for gaining any kind of direct fitness start to decrease very rapidly. As a worker it’s a much better bet to do what you can to maximise your indirect fitness benefits in large colonies, and this can be achieved by becoming increasingly specialised for your particular role. Increases in division of labour, for example, as individuals specialise more in particular tasks, may lead to increase colony efficiency and success. In turn, this may allow for the evolution of larger colonies, resulting in a positive feedback loop whereby increases in colony size lead to increases in division of labour which lead to increases in colony size, and so on. This force may have lead to the evolution of ant species with enormous colonies – over a million workers can be found in some leaf-cutter colonies!

GEE Researchers Professor Kate Jones and Henry Ferguson-Gow, along with colleagues at the University of East Anglia and the University of Bristol, produced a phylogenetic tree for the Attine Ants (a group containing over 250 species), and mapped social and environmental data onto this tree in order to test for the effects of colony size and environment on the evolution of more sophisticated division of labour. The Attini are a good group of ants to test this hypothesis in, as they show large variation in colony size and the extent of morphological divergence between the queen and worker caste.

They collected published data on social traits (colony size, worker size, queen size) and environmental conditions (daytime temperature, seasonality in temperature and precipitation) for over 600 observations of populations for 57 species of Attine ant, including every single Attine genus. Using supertree methods, they constructed a phylogeny for the attine ants, which enabled them to control for evolutionary relationships and to estimate the speed at which evolutionary changes occurred.

Colony size ranged from 16 to 6 million individuals, with the largest colonies exhibited by the fungus growing leaf-cutter ants Atta and Acromyrmex. The authors found that increases in colony size through evolution are strongly associated with increases in both worker size variation (representing division of labour within the worker caste) and queen worker dimorphism (representing reproductive division of labour). Colony size showed a positve correlation with variation in size within the worker caste, and a weaker, but positive correlation with queen-worker dimorphism. Environmental factors such as temperature, rainfall and seasonality did not have any effect on colony size, indicating that climate and other environmental variables have not been an important factor in driving the evolution of increased colony size.

This study finds strong support for the size-complexity hypothesis, which suggests that during the evolution of eusociality, increases in colony size both drove and were driven by increases in division of labour and in specialisation of the queen and worker castes to their respective roles. This pattern may have also occurred during other major transitions in evolution, such as the evolution of multicellularity, which shares many similarities with the evolution of eusociality (e.g closely related group members, division of labour). The relationship between group size and complexity may therefore have been a crucial force in the evolution of complex life, and in the major evolutionary innovations that have generated the diversity of life we see today.

Original Article:

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This research was made possible by funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).