Evolutionary transition to a semelparous life history in the socially parasitic ant Acromyrmex insinuator

D. Bekkevold, Jacobus Jan Boomsma, Jane Frydenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


The recently discovered social parasite Acromyrmex insinuator (Schultz, Bekkevold and Boomsma 1998) exploits colonies of the leafcutter ant A. echinatior. We document that A. insinuator represents a rare early stage in the evolution of social parasitism, because a worker caste is still partially present and mating phenology has remained at least partially similar to that of the host. A. insinuator is tolerant of host queens, and sexual offspring produced in parasitized colonies can be either exclusively A. insinuator or a mix of A. insinuator and A. echinatior. The remarkably high abundance of A. insinuator in nests of the investigated Panamanian host population and the fact that A. insinuator colonies readily reproduce under laboratory conditions allowed us to test evolutionary predictions on reproductive life history evolution that are not possible in most other socially parasitic ants. We show that (1) A. insinuator has a semelparous 'big bang' reproductive life history which exploits host colonies without leaving reserves for survival; (2) social parasite sexuals are significantly smaller than A. echinatior host sexuals, but still large compared to host workers, confirming an evolutionary scenario of gradual size reduction and loss of the worker caste after transition towards a socially parasitic life history; (3) major changes in the life history of ants can evolve relatively quickly compared to adaptations in morphology, caste differentiation and mating phenology.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)615-623
Publication statusPublished - 2000
Externally publishedYes


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