Royal Society Publishing

Identifying the transition between single and multiple mating of queens in fungus-growing ants

Palle Villesen, Takahiro Murakami, Ted R. Schultz, obus J. Boomsma


Obligate mating of females (queens) with multiple males has evolved only rarely in social Hymenoptera (ants, social bees, social wasps) and for reasons that are fundamentally different from those underlying multiple mating in other animals. The monophyletic tribe of ‘attin’) fungus–growing ants is known to include evolutionarily derived genera with obligate multiple mating (the Acromyrmex and Atta leafcutter ants) as well as phylogenetically basal genera with exclusively single mating (e.g. Apterostigma, Cyphomyrmex, Myrmicocrypta). All attine genera share the unique characteristic of obligate dependence on symbiotic fungus gardens for food, but the sophistication of this symbiosis differs considerably across genera. The lower attine genera generally have small, short–lived colonies and relatively non–specialized fungal symbionts (capable of living independently of their ant hosts), whereas the four evolutionarily derived higher attine genera have highly specialized, long–term clonal symbionts. In this paper, we investigate whether the transition from single to multiple mating occurred relatively recently in the evolution of the attine ants, in conjunction with the novel herbivorous ‘leafcutte’ niche acquired by the common ancestor of Acromyrmex and Atta, or earlier, at the transition to rearing specialized long–term clonal fungi in the common ancestor of the larger group of higher attines that also includes the genera Trachymyrmex and Sericomyrmex. We use DNA microsatellite analysis to provide unambiguous evidence for a single, late and abrupt evolutionary transition from exclusively single to obligatory multiple mating. This transition is historically correlated with other evolutionary innovations, including the extensive use of fresh vegetation as substrate for the fungus garden, a massive increase in mature colony size and morphological differentiation of the worker caste.