Extreme genetic differences between queens and workers in hybridizing Pogonomyrmex harvester ants

Sara Helms Cahan, Joel D. Parker, Steven W. Rissing, Robert A. Johnson, Tatjana S. Polony, Michael D. Weiser, Deborah R. Smith

Abstract

The process of reproductive caste determination in eusocial insect colonies is generally understood to be mediated by environmental, rather than genetic factors. We present data demonstrating unexpected genetic differences between reproductive castes in a variant of the rough harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex rugosus var. fuscatus. Across multiple loci, queens were consistently more homozygous than expected, while workers were more heterozygous. Adult colony queens were divided into two highly divergent genetic groups, indicating the presence of two cryptic species, rather than a single population. The observed genetic differences between castes reflect differential representation of heterospecific and conspecific patrilines in these offspring groups. All workers were hybrids; by contrast, winged queens were nearly all pure–species. The complete lack of pure–species workers indicates a loss of worker potential in pure–species female offspring. Hybrids appear to be bipotential, but do not normally develop into reproductives because they are displaced by pure–species females in the reproductive pool. Genetic differences between reproductive castes are expected to be rare in non–hybridizing populations, but within hybrid zones they may be evolutionarily stable and thus much more likely to occur.

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