Ants are just about everywhere you look, and yet it's largely unknown how they manage to be so ubiquitous. Scientists have understood the carnal mechanism of ant reproduction, but until now have known little of how successful the daughters of a colony are when they attempt to found new colonies.
For the first time, Stanford biologists have been able to identify specific parent ants and their own children in wild ant colonies, making it possible to study reproduction trends.
And in a remarkable display of longevity, an original queen ant was found to be producing new ants several decades after mating, sending out daughter queens throughout her 20- to 30-year lifespan.
"Most animals produce offspring for a while, and then they enter a life stage where they don't," Gordon said. "These queen ants are mating once, storing that sperm in a special sac, keeping it alive and using it to fertilize eggs for another 25 years."
From an ecological viewpoint, an ant colony is much like a tree putting out seeds, with the potential to create new trees. An ant queen produces genetically identical worker ants that live in the same colony, and also produces sons, and daughter queens. The daughter queens, after mating, establish new colonies of their own.
Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, has been studying a particular population of harvester ant colonies in southeastern Arizona for 28 years, meticulously recording when a new colony rises or an older one falls.
Gordon's group took the DNA fingerprint of each colony by analyzing a section of microsatellite, or "junk", DNA to identify which colonies were related. By pairing the genetic analysis with the long-term observations, Gordon was able to determine the original queen and colony, and the order in which the daughter queens and subsequent generations established new colonies.
The researchers also found that only about 25 percent of the colonies reproduce at all, and many of the daughter queens are not successful. The entire population – the study group consisted of about 300 colonies – relies on just a few queens to make most of the offspring year after year.
"We don't know whether all harvester ant populations always behave this way, or whether these trends hold true for all 11,000 ant species, because nobody has identified colony offspring before," Gordon said. "This gives us new insight on how ant populations change over time."
In general, ants play an important role in agriculture around the world, with some helping to disperse seeds while others eat herbivorous insects. Understanding how populations of ant colonies reproduce and expand, and the rate at which they do so, could be useful in managing invasive ant species, predicting crop yields and understanding the ecology of tropical forests.
"If you're trying to understand how a population grows – say, you are trying to keep a population of lions going – the first thing you need to know is how many lionesses you have, and how many cubs they have and can support per year," Gordon said. "For ecological purposes, it's very useful to be able to say how ant populations will grow. This is the first step toward understanding how to predict numbers of ant colonies."
The study was published Jan. 31 in the online version of the Journal of Animal Ecology.
Deborah Gordon, Biology: (650) 725-6364, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, email@example.com
Bjorn Carey | Source: EurekAlert!
Further information: www.stanford.edu
More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:
More emphasis needed on recycling and reuse of Li-ion batteries
23.05.2013 | American Chemical Society
Thinking 'big' may not be best approach to saving large-river fish
23.05.2013 | University of Wisconsin-Madison
New indicator molecules visualise the activation of auto-aggressive T cells in the body as never before
Biological processes are generally based on events at the molecular and cellular level. To understand what happens in the course of infections, diseases or normal bodily functions, scientists would need to examine individual cells and their activity directly in the tissue.
The development of new microscopes and fluorescent dyes in ...
A fried breakfast food popular in Spain provided the inspiration for the development of doughnut-shaped droplets that may provide scientists with a new approach for studying fundamental issues in physics, mathematics and materials.
The doughnut-shaped droplets, a shape known as toroidal, are formed from two dissimilar liquids using a simple rotating stage and an injection needle. About a millimeter in overall size, the droplets are produced individually, their shapes maintained by a surrounding springy material made of polymers.
Droplets in this toroidal shape made ...
Frauhofer FEP will present a novel roll-to-roll manufacturing process for high-barriers and functional films for flexible displays at the SID DisplayWeek 2013 in Vancouver – the International showcase for the Display Industry.
Displays that are flexible and paper thin at the same time?! What might still seem like science fiction will be a major topic at the SID Display Week 2013 that currently takes place in Vancouver in Canada.
High manufacturing cost and a short lifetime are still a major obstacle on ...
University of Würzburg physicists have succeeded in creating a new type of laser.
Its operation principle is completely different from conventional devices, which opens up the possibility of a significantly reduced energy input requirement. The researchers report their work in the current issue of Nature.
It also emits light the waves of which are in phase with one another: the polariton laser, developed ...
Innsbruck physicists led by Rainer Blatt and Peter Zoller experimentally gained a deep insight into the nature of quantum mechanical phase transitions.
They are the first scientists that simulated the competition between two rival dynamical processes at a novel type of transition between two quantum mechanical orders. They have published the results of their work in the journal Nature Physics.
“When water boils, its molecules are released as vapor. We call this ...
23.05.2013 | Physics and Astronomy
23.05.2013 | Health and Medicine
23.05.2013 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
17.05.2013 | Event News
15.05.2013 | Event News
08.05.2013 | Event News