This work was financially supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) (grant He 3169/4-2) and the Universita¨t Duisburg-Essen. The molecular work of this study was conducted in the Pritzker Laboratory of Molecular Systematics and Evolution at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Insect-plant relationships, Ants -- Ecology
Protective ant-plant mutualisms that are exploited by non-defending parasitic ants represent prominent model systems for ecology and evolutionary biology. The mutualist Pseudomyrmex ferrugineus is an obligate plant-ant and fully depends on acacias for nesting space and food. The parasite Pseudomyrmex gracilis facultatively nests on acacias and uses host-derived food rewards but also external food sources. Integrative analyses of genetic microsatellite data, cuticular hydrocarbons and behavioral assays showed that an individual acacia might be inhabited by the workers of several P. gracilis queens, whereas one P. ferrugineus colony monopolizes one or more host trees. Despite these differences in social organization, neither of the species exhibited aggressive behavior among conspecific workers sharing a tree regardless of their relatedness. This lack of aggression corresponds to the high similarity of cuticular hydrocarbon profiles among ants living on the same tree. Host sharing by unrelated colonies, or the presence of several queens in a single colony are discussed as strategies by which parasite colonies could achieve the observed social organization. We argue that in ecological terms, the non-aggressive behavior of non-sibling P. gracilis workers — regardless of the route to achieve this social structure — enables this species to efficiently occupy and exploit a host plant. By contrast, single large and long-lived colonies of the mutualist P. ferrugineus monopolize individual host plants and defend them aggressively against invaders from other trees. Our findings highlight the necessity for using several methods in combination to fully understand how differing life history strategies affect social organization in ants.
Kautz S, Ballhorn DJ, Kroiss J, Pauls SU, Moreau CS, Eilmus S, et al. (2012) Host Plant Use by Competing Acacia-Ants: Mutualists Monopolize While Parasites Share Hosts. PLoS ONE 7(5): e37691.