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Genetic royal cheats in leaf-cutting ant societies

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 12:34 authored by William HughesWilliam Hughes, Jacobus J Boomsma
Social groups are vulnerable to cheating because the reproductive interests of group members are rarely identical. All cooperative systems are therefore predicted to involve a mix of cooperative and cheating genotypes, with the frequency of the latter being constrained by the suppressive abilities of the former. The most significant potential conflict in social insect colonies is over which individuals become reproductive queens rather than sterile workers. This reproductive division of labor is a defining characteristic of eusocial societies, but individual larvae will maximize their fitness by becoming queens whereas their nestmates will generally maximize fitness by forcing larvae to become workers. However, evolutionary constraints are thought to prevent cheating by removing genetic variation in caste propensity. Here, we show that one-fifth of leaf-cutting ant patrilines cheat their nestmates by biasing their larval development toward becoming queens rather than workers. Two distinct mechanisms appear to be involved, one most probably involving a general tendency to become a larger adult and the other relating specifically to the queen-worker developmental switch. Just as evolutionary theory predicts, these "royal" genotypes are rare both in the population and within individual colonies. The rarity of royal cheats is best explained as an evolutionary strategy to avoid suppression by cooperative genotypes, the efficiency of which is frequency-dependent. The results demonstrate that cheating can be widespread in even the most cooperative of societies and illustrate that identical principles govern social evolution in highly diverse systems.


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  • Published


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences




National Academy of Sciences





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  • Evolution, Behaviour and Environment Publications

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