University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006
Population structure and evolution in the ant Plagiolepis pygmaea and its two social parasites Plagiolepis xene and Plagiolepis grassei
Doctoral dissertation, June 2006.
Social behaviour affects dispersal of animals and is an important modifier of genetic population structures. The female sex is often philopatric, which maintains coancestry within the breeding groups and promotes cooperative behaviours. This enables also inclusive fitness returns from altruism and explains why some individuals sacrifice personal reproduction for the good of others in social insects such as ants. However, reduced dispersal and population substructuring at the level of colonies may also entail inbreeding, loss of genetic diversity, and vulnerability. In addition, the most vulnerable ants are species that are evolved to parasitize colonies of other ants, and which compromise between abilities to disperse and the efficiency to parasitize the host. On the other hand, certain social organisations of ant colonies may facilitate a species to disperse outside its natural range and become a pest. Altogether, knowledge on genetic structuring of ant populations, as well as the evolution of their life histories can contribute to conservation biology and population management.
The aim of this thesis was to investigate population structures and phylogenetic evolution of the ant Plagiolepis pygmaea and its two obligatory, workerless social parasites (inquilines) P. xene and P. grassei with genetic markers and DNA sequence data. The results support the general assumption that populations of inquiline parasites are highly fragmented and genetically vulnerable. Comparison of the two parasites suggests that differences in their relative abundance may follow from their interaction with the host, i.e. how well the species is adapted to reproduce in the host colonies. The results also indicate that the most recent free living ancestor to these two parasite species is their common host. This is considered to provide evidence for the controversial issue of sympatric speciation. Further, given that the level of adaptations to parasitic life history depends on the evolutionary time since the free-living ancestor, the results establish a link between species rarity and its evolutionary age. The populations of the host species P. pygmaea displayed significantly reduced dispersal both among the females (queens) and males, and high levels of inbreeding which may enhance worker altruism. In addition, the queens were found to mate with multiple males. Given the high relatedness between the queens and their mates, this occurs probably for non-genetic reasons, e.g. without benefits associated in genetically more diverse offspring. The results hence caution that the contribution of non-genetic factors to the prevailing mating patterns and genetic population structures should not be underestimated.
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Last updated 26.05.2006