Ants are renowned in the insect world for their complex social structure and behaviors. Workers and foragers support the queen, faithfully carrying out their social roles for the overall health of the colony. This complex “superorganism” — as scientists have dubbed it — has become a prime model to explore the genetic and behavioral roots of social organisms.
Remarkably, there are also rare instances of ants not playing well with others and shrugging off their societal duties to become free-loading parasites amongst their free-living relatives.
Now, in a new study published in Nature Communications, an international collaboration of researchers from Europe (the Universities of Münster and Copenhagen), South America (University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay), and the U.S., (led by Arizona State University), teamed up to discover and collect these rare ant social parasites. Together, they have obtained and analyzed the full DNA genome sequences of three rare “social parasite” leaf-cutting ant species (called Acromyrmex inquilines) to better understand the differences between them and their respective host species.
Rare Parasitic Ant, Pseudoatta argentina
A new study, led by ASU SOLS professor Christian Rabeling, has provided detailed insights into the molecular evolution of social parasitism in ants. Credit: Martin Bollazzi
It’s the first time several species of socially parasitic ants could have their genomes sequenced.
“Our findings advance our understanding of the genomic consequences of transitioning to a novel, highly specialized life history and provide detailed insights into the molecular evolution of social parasitism in ants,” said Christian Rabeling, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and a corresponding author of the study.